Once upon a time, way back in the high-on-the-hog days before 2008, dining on massive hunks of pricey beef and sipping even pricier Cab in a posh steakhouse was a guilt-free pleasure, to be indulged in often and with gusto. But après le deluge, well, you know the rest of the story: When the age of austerity arrived, steakhouses suddenly seemed about as politically correct as burning $100 bills in a homeless shelter. If you could afford to do it, you sure didn't want to admit it.
But now that economists are telling us we've entered the "post-recession" era, is it safe again to proclaim the glories of a good steakhouse? I, for one, love the sheer outrageousness of a 30-ounce porterhouse, the luxurious badness of potatoes drowned in cream and then baked with a half pound of cheddar cheese. I love the frisson of reckless abandon engendered by a menu with a price point over $40. I even love the ubiquitous, nutritionally null iceberg wedge enrobed in its de rigueur blue-cheese dressing. This is probably the last thing a discerning food reviewer in tough economic times should admit, but I was thrilled when I got the assignment to review a steakhouse.
For the most part, dining at Venegas Prime Filet in Howard County affords the kind of pleasures you'd expect from a solid steakhouse: the lush comforts of good service, crazy-caloric sides, flavorful beef, cut and cooked properly.
In terms of atmosphere, Venegas eschews the decadent, over-the-top swank of The Prime Rib and the men's-club vibe of The Capital Grille. The dining room is subdued and quietly soothing, with elegant sconces lighting pumpkin-colored walls and judicious dabs of leather and wood. It's female- and family-friendly, a place where both cozy couples and gatherings of celebrating relatives can feel comfortable. On both nights I visited, the young, eager staff was friendly and attentive, inviting questions and happily giving advice about the menu's offerings. The one slip-up occurred on our second visit in a case of bad timing when our entrees arrived before we'd finished our appetizers. Over a meal as expensive as this—and Venegas is expensive, only slightly less so than similar spots in D.C. and Baltimore—you really want to linger for as long as possible.
The menu is standard steakhouse fare, with appetizers ranging from properly paper-thin carpaccio sprinkled with Parmesan and olive oil to a lively tuna tartar and the requisite jumbo shrimp cocktail. Venegas's version of the iceberg wedge sports bacon, tomato, and figs along with the blue-cheese dressing, and honey-lime vinaigrette enlivens the pear-and-arugula salad nicely.
But salads are a mere pretense of healthiness on the way to the heart-clogging main event. Venegas doesn't bother with elaborate narratives about the provenance and painstaking cultivation of its beef. It's prime; it's aged. End of story. The eponymous prime filet mignon is the star of the show here, available in eight- or 12-ounce portions and with or without a snowy shower of lump crab. I'm not usually a fan of filet mignon, the cut that connoisseurs of really beefy tasting beef dismiss as wimpy and bland. But here the absurdly tender meat is rich with buttery flavor. A massive hunk of Delmonico has a charred, salty exterior and the mineral robustness of classic rib-eye. For the truly meat mad, there's a 30-ounce Wagyu on offer, but, really, that may be pushing carnivoreness to excess. You can choose to side your steak with a variety of sauces, from Cabernet to hollandaise to horseradish cream.
Heretics can find plenty of non-beef alternatives on the menu—a pan-roasted salmon, a perfectly beautiful herb-crusted rack of lamb, shrimp tortellini—but the one non-steak dish we tried that failed was a braised-beef short rib, whose oddly nondescript flavor had us longing for our companion's suave tournedos of filet mignon graced with potato-cheese stuffed pierogis and buttery shrimp. In other words, if you love cow, stick to the steaks.
Accompaniments—here called "accessories"—are the usual diet disasters, vegetables and starches rendered unhealthily delicious with generous dollops of butter and cream. Even the Brussels sprouts are decked out in bacon.
If you haven't lapsed into a food coma by the time dessert rolls around, Venegas features a small selection of traditional offerings (think crème brûlée and Key lime pie), from which we recommend a particularly lovely warm berry cobbler. Nothing fancy, but good.
And that's perhaps the particular attraction of Venegas Prime Filet. Although the food is appropriately luxurious, there's something unpretentious about the place that appeals to that primal desire for simple, good food . . . and makes it seem perfectly fine to indulge in a bit of excess in the new post-recession world.