515 Route 38 E., Cherry Hill
Restaurant trends come and go, but I cannot remember a time when the charmingly old-school tradition of tableside Caesar salad service has gone out of style. These days especially, with everyone focusing on the craftsmanship of their meals—artisanal cheese, small-production wine, pasture-raised beef—the old-fashioned attention to detail necessitated by this ritual dressing of Romaine seems particularly relevant.
So out it comes at Steak 38, the cart bearing an oversized wooden bowl, a fluffy mound of Romaine, and all the other totemic components. Within seconds, the sweet pungency of garlic fills the air, followed by the inimitable funk of anchovies. Mustard makes an appearance, as do a few generous spoonfuls of parmesan cheese and an egg yolk. It’s a mesmerizing process, the waitress’ well-practiced movements lulling us all into some kind of trance, conversation stopping out of respect for this dance.
The payoff, it turns out, is one of the highlights of a meal at Steak 38—a heady, crunchy appetizer that is easily one of the better salads I’ve had this year.
If only the rest of the meal achieved such distinction. Alas, it was held back at too many turns by either less-than-stellar ingredients or careless preparations. Which is unfortunate, because Steak 38 is the kind of throwback that you want to love—the padded bar out front, the semi-wall of glass bricks separating the dining room from the bar area, the menu charmingly kitted out with classics.
Steaks, for example, come prepared in any number of ways, from gorgonzola-crusted to adorned with béarnaise sauce. A rib eye, however, was undone by overcooking and underseasoning, both of which conspired to show off the flesh’s lack of inherent character: Devoid of much flavor on its own, this 14-ounce steak was merely a vessel for the underwhelming layer of garlic crowning it. A side of piped mashed potatoes in their own skin was dry and also underseasoned.
Mixed broiled seafood, however, was the low-point, an expensive ($35) plateful of generally flaccid fruits of the sea. Shrimp was the least off-putting, despite being overcooked by a good 30 seconds. Salmon, on the other hand, was so overcooked as to have attained the consistency of mush and the disconcertingly fishy aroma that inevitably results from too much time in the heat.
Stuffed flounder was remarkable only for its lack of flavor, and scallops, with their metallic tang, were difficult to eat at all. Crab cakes fared better, as did clams casino, the generous pieces of bacon lending them character.
Desserts were a much-needed rebound. Bread pudding was notable for a confident, creamy sauce blanketing its massive heft, and a texture that ended the meal beautifully. And despite a top that could have used more caramelization, crème brûlée succeeded reasonably well, its pudding-like center compulsively spoonable.
Perhaps we would have been better off, though, ordering the restaurant’s highly regarded bananas foster, another tableside presentation that, like the Caesar, ropes the entire dining room’s attention with its flames and wafting aromas of butter and alcohol.
In the end, I just kept on wanting the kitchen at Steak 38 to pay more attention to detail and to maybe source slightly better ingredients. A side of vegetables, for example, tasted like a dead ringer for the frozen ones so many of us grew up on—mandolin-cut carrot medallions, flavorless broccoli and cauliflower—you get the idea. And the wine list could use some freshening up, especially in the by-the-glass selections: Offering higher-quality glass-pours would serve to frame the food much better than the severely limited offerings do now. At least the markups on the nice selection of bottles are more than fair, and there are a number of commendable wines to be found.
None of this, though, seems to be hurting business: Dinner service on a recent Saturday night saw a packed, happy dining room, a full bar and a parking lot teeming with cars as I left. Many loyalists remember the space from its previous incarnation, but now that original owner Joe DiAmore has teamed up with Ben Blumberg, formerly of Barnacle Ben’s in Mount Laurel, and re-opened the restaurant, here’s to hoping the kinks get ironed out quickly.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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