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Try The Outback Steakhouse For A Great Australian Bite

FRIDAY, FEB. 7, 1997

Reviewing the new Outback Steakhouse should be a piece of cake, I thought. I could almost write it without setting foot inside the Australian-themed place.

It’s a chain restaurant with predictable food, right? I figured I would describe the cutesy atmosphere with pictures of koala bears and Crocodile Dundee cluttering the walls and poke fun at the servers saying things like “That’s not a knife. This is a knife.”

Well, surprise, surprise. The Outback wasn’t as corny as I expected. Sure, there was a plenty of hookum on the wall, but nobody uttered “G’day mate” when we walked in.

In fact, our waiter won me over by rolling his eyes when I asked him for a “jacket potato” or when I ordered my “shrimp on the barbie.”

And, all gimmicks aside, the food was pretty “fair dinkum.”

It’s no wonder this Florida-based chain is one of the fastest-growing dinner houses in the country. There are now more than 360 Outbacks in 38 states.

Since opening in December, the restaurant at Franklin Park Mall has enjoyed phenomenal success. On a recent Thursday night, it was jam-packed. (I can almost hear small, struggling restaurateurs licking their chops over such mid-week crowds.)

So, what, exactly is the appeal of this theme eatery? The simple answer is: grilled meat and lots of it.

Across the nation, steak houses are experiencing a renaissance. For years, when Americans first started dining out for pleasure in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a thick, juicy steak was considered the ultimate splurge. Steak houses everywhere sizzled. (Remember Black Angus?)

Of course, that was before we were concerned about cholesterol, before people sweated to the oldies, before the Center for Science in the Public Interest deemed certain dishes “heart attacks on a plate.”

Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging back and steak houses are catering to people who are fed up with counting grams of fat and doing marathon aerobics classes. We want to indulge in something decadent and a big hunk of meat fills the bill nicely.

The menu at the Outback is, indeed, laden with the kind of high-calorie foods that would give Richard Simmons fits.

For instance, the Aussie Cheese Fries features deep-fried “chips” smothered in cheddar and jack and bacon. Dip those babies into some spicy ranch dressing and loosen your belt buckle.

Our waiter insisted we try the signature Bloomin’ Onion ($4.95) when he learned it was our first visit to the Outback. This big, battered bulb is cut so when it’s deep-fried, it blossoms into a golden, greasy chrysanthemum.

If you’re a fan of onion rings, this appetizer is a must. The fat little onion fingers were so disgustingly good, I knew I was going to hate myself in the morning. The thing is easily big enough to share between six people.

The rest of the menu is largely dedicated to meat. There are several types of steaks, (the Crocodile Dundee is a 14-ounce sirloin and the Melbourne porterhouse weighs in at 20 ounces), three sizes of prime rib, pork chops, ribs and a few chicken dishes. There are also a few seafood selections, entree-size salads and a pasta with grilled portobello mushrooms, the lone vegetarian dish.

My Outback Special (a 12-ounce sirloin) came with a choice of house salad or Caesar, which was good and garlicky and plentiful. The steak dinner ($11.95) is also served with a choice of a jacket potato (that’s a baked spud for you Yanks who don’t speak Australian), Aussie chips (a.k.a. french fries) or steamed veggies. For an extra $4.95, you can make dinner a surf-and-turf affair with the addition of grilled shrimp.

Someone had complained to me that the overall impression they were left with after visiting Outback was that everything was oversalted. Maybe so, for some tastes, but my steak was seasoned just right.

My thick-cut sirloin was everything I expect from a steak. Flavorful and juicy, the steak was covered in a dry herb rub that made for a nice coating. The meat was cooked the ruby shade of red I had ordered. A little too red, actually.

Our waiter had warned me, though, suggesting that I order my steak medium instead of medium rare because the cooks at Outback tend to err on the underdone side. I didn’t believe him. It’s been my experience that most beef purveyors overcook steaks, so I stuck with medium rare and it arrived still mooing. (Sorry about that lame stab at steak humor.)

Without ever saying “I told you so,” our gracious server threw it back on the fire for a few.

The only thing I didn’t appreciate about the whole process was the patronizing manager who brought back my new, improved steak. His bowing and scraping routine was completely insincere.

I also sampled the shrimp on the barbie - a skewer of properly cooked crustaceans with a good flavor - as well as the ribs on the barbie. This big pile of bones had a intensely smoky quality. For ribs, they were meaty and tender. And the barbecue sauce was a pleasant balance of sweet and spicy.

The rib dinner ($10.95) was served with a generous portion of fries and a small dish of cinnamon apples, which were sweet and gooey. I don’t care for dessert with my dinner and this tasted like it belonged in between some flaky pie crusts.

Wash it all down with a specialty cocktail (Wallaby Darned, anyone?), a Foster’s Lager on tap or one of the wines from down under. The cabernet from Rosemount is a good choice, as is the chardonnay from Jacobs Creek.

So, after enjoying perfectly fine meals at Outback, I still felt somewhat unsatisfied. It’s probably just me, but I’m uncomfortable with the way these chain restaurants rely so heavily on a formula.

Sure, that kind of formula cooking certainly has its place in the world, but I feel frustrated on behalf of those independently owned restaurants where creative chefs are passionate about food. I fear that the proliferation of corporate kitchens will squeeze out the innovative eateries that try so hard to push the culinary envelope.

I’m a sucker for the underdog, so I probably won’t be back to the Outback anytime soon. But judging from the crowds, nobody will miss me. , DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE Address: 5628 N. Division, 484-6956 Days/hours: Monday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday, 4-11 p.m.; Saturday, 1-11 p.m.; Sunday, 1-10 p.m. Meals: steaks, prime rib, seafood Prices: $8.95-$17.95 Smoking: in lounge only Reservations: no Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V Personal checks: yes

ONE HOT POTATO Regular readers know I’m a sucker for spuds. Small wonder one of the new pizzas at Rock City Grill caught my eye. It’s a heavenly pie piled with roasted red potatoes, Bermuda onions, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and smoky mozzarella. Maybe it sounds a bit odd, but it was a sublime combination. I just wonder why it took so long for someone to dream up this divine dish. And, I’m positively giddy at the potential for a potato pizza trend. What could be next? A mashed potato pie? A french fry calzone? Au gratin on a dough disc? Yep, that’s one hot potato.

This sidebar appeared with the story: OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE Address: 5628 N. Division, 484-6956 Days/hours: Monday-Thursday, 4-10 p.m.; Friday, 4-11 p.m.; Saturday, 1-11 p.m.; Sunday, 1-10 p.m. Meals: steaks, prime rib, seafood Prices: $8.95-$17.95 Smoking: in lounge only Reservations: no Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V Personal checks: yes

ONE HOT POTATO Regular readers know I’m a sucker for spuds. Small wonder one of the new pizzas at Rock City Grill caught my eye. It’s a heavenly pie piled with roasted red potatoes, Bermuda onions, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil and smoky mozzarella. Maybe it sounds a bit odd, but it was a sublime combination. I just wonder why it took so long for someone to dream up this divine dish. And, I’m positively giddy at the potential for a potato pizza trend. What could be next? A mashed potato pie? A french fry calzone? Au gratin on a dough disc? Yep, that’s one hot potato.



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