If we are what we eat, then we must be lobsters cavorting in a grove of Italian olive trees. Now wait, before you scoff, pause and consider: Darden Restaurants, landlord of the garden and fisher of the crustacean, is the world's largest chain of full-service restaurants.
Founded in 1968, Darden now encompasses nearly 2,000 locations, employs close to 200,000, serves 400 million meals a year, generates $7.2 billion in revenues. And lest you think it's all mid-market, suburban, shopping-mall pablum, keep in mind that the Darden corral also includes a chain of some 40 upper-end steak houses called The Capital Grille, with a Seattle outpost in the Cobb Building.
(The 1300 block of Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle has turned into a real restaurant row. You can start at Purple, on the southwest corner of Fourth and University, cross the street heading north, and stumble into The Captal Grille before getting to Potbelly Pig and Michael Mina's RN74.)
Yes, Darden's "culinary inspirations," as they're called, "come from the fishing villages of Maine, the family tables of Italy and the American West," skillfully evoking traditions that probably never existed.
Now, nothing against Seattle's fine stable of locally owned steak houses (The Met, El Gaucho, Daniel's Broiler, John Howie Steak, The Brooklyn, Jak's) or the multi-unit, out-of-town competition (Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Sullivan's) which vie with The Capital Grille for upscale business customers. The priciest item at CG is a $46, 24-oz, dry-aged Porterhouse; at The Met, it would set you back $68. At El Gaucho, they'll wheel the carving cart to your table with a 35-oz Porterhouse for 135 clams and divide it for two. Point being, CG underprices the locals because, they say, they purchase their beef locally and dry-age it in-house, in the 6,000 square-foot basement below their 8,000 square-foot restaurant.
Says Managing Partner Nic Kassis, "We strive to provide extraordinary service and value."
Steak houses, of course, are a highly competitive niche, especially since they seem immune to the pressures of a distressed economy. You wouldn't want to go there for a first date; that's what quaint neighborhood restaurants are for. But steak houses are the default location for expense-account business dinners.
Another wrinkle: the folks who eat those dinners can also be talked into buying better wine than they might drink at home. Flemings, which pulled out of Seattle, had a notable wine list. El Gaucho, Met Grill and John Howie all have top-level sommeliers. At Capital Grille, the wine guru back at headquarters is George Miliotes, one of fewer than 200 Master Sommeliers.
In addition to compiling a wine list of big reds from California and Bordeaux, Miliotes has come up with a concept called "Generous Pour." For two months every summer (until Labor Day), diners can pay $25 and get up to nine wine pairings. An apéritif of Italian bubbles, a quartet of California stalwarts (Villa Mt. Eden pinot noir, Ferrari-Carano and Conn Creek cabs, Gary Farrell chardonnay), a fine Bordeaux, a decent Italian blend, a very pleasant South African dessert wine.
At a dinner this week for members of the media I was particuarly pleased that the ninth member of this year's list is a wine from the Slovenian side of northeast Italy's Collio region (where it's called Brda), made from ribolla gialla grapes. Cornichon readers may recall my posts from the region, which included this post about these age-worthy white wines.
Josko Sirk, whose restaurant, La Subida, is the best in the Collio, told me a year ago that the Collio and Brda wine regions should be combined to make the world's first international DOC or AOC. Can you imagine what that would mean? The wines would be on everybody's list.
Meantime, it's good to see that concept of a restaurant chain--a recognizable brand with a predictable menu--can also encompass the occasional surprise.