Dining

Reviews: Shanahan's Steakhouse

December 2010

5085 S. Syracuse St., 303-770-7300, shanahanssteakhouse.com

The Draw A classic, high-end steak house set in a modern environment with a lively bar scene and excellent service.

The Drawback This is not a place for gastro-tourists hunting for originality or the next trend.

Don’t Miss Wagyu rib-eye filet, Kobe beef carpaccio, jumbo lump crab cake, Shanahan’s signature chocolate cake.

Price $$$$ (average entrée price $37.50)

Like anyone who’s ever dined at a high-end celebrity steak house, I knew what I was in for at Shanahan’s Steakhouse. Heavy silver. Thick white linens. A hefty wine list. Crème brûlée. Given that the restaurant is partially owned by former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, I also figured there’d be some sports memorabilia thrown into the mix, and probably more than a few high-def televisions. I’m not saying I wasn’t eager to check out the place, only that I didn’t expect any more—or less—than I’ve encountered at other like-minded restaurants around the country.

And I’m not alone. Steak houses, especially those that charge top dollar, know their typical customers are not interested in originality. Instead, they want a menu full of comforting favorites such as garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, and prime cuts of meat. They want attentive service, and they want it now. Fussy garnishes and cute little napkin folds? Forget it. A $200 bottle of Cabernet? Why, yes, that would be lovely. The challenge, then, for any new steak house, is giving customers exactly what they expect, while also quietly adding something new to the mix.

This is the balancing act that Shanahan’s, which opened last December, has been working to perfect. Everything you want in a quality steak house is here, from the complimentary valet parking and chilled shrimp cocktail to the twice-baked potato and prime New York strip. But there are also several distinct differences, some of which work better than others.

On the plus side, there’s the decor, which is shiny and modern with high ceilings, hard edges, and one long wall lined with tantalizing glass-fronted wine refrigerators. Instead of the collegial club feel you get at more traditional, dark-wood steak houses, Shanahan’s offers the kind of luxurious anonymity more often associated with Fifth Avenue hotel lobbies—and this isn’t a bad thing. Given its Tech Center location, Shanahan’s is the kind of place where the impersonal glitz feels just about right.

Extra credit goes to Shanahan’s management team, led by Marc Steron (formerly of Del Frisco’s), for keeping the sports kitsch in check. Yes, Shanahan’s Super Bowl rings and Lombardi Trophies are on display—but tastefully so. (I dined three times before noticing them.) And while there are the expected plasma televisions, they are tucked inside the main bar area and hung discreetly off to the side of the dining room. If you don’t want to watch the game, it’s easily avoided. What you’re more likely to notice is the live jazz that’s often played in the bar but broadcast at subtle levels throughout the restaurant.

The crowd is also decidedly more mixed than at other steak houses. Here, techies gather for a quick bite and lively conversation in the bar, while old-money widows dine at a more leisurely pace in the restaurant. In between those two extremes are young couples, middle-aged marrieds, and various groupings of singles looking to form doubles.

As for the menu, there’s the traditional à la carte lineup of soups, salads, sides, and beef. But executive chef Keith Stich, who, at 28, is already a veteran of steak house culture (he’s presided over broilers in Scottsdale and Newport Beach), reaches beyond timid steak house fare in a number of ways.

In addition to the classic USDA prime cuts—porterhouse, rib-eye, lamb chops—he offers a selection of natural meats raised without growth hormones, steroids, or antibiotics. The best, by far, is the rich and buttery Wagyu filet of rib-eye, a supremely tender cut that needs no extra seasoning or sauce. Second best? The savory, almost two-inch-thick natural veal chop. It’s also impressive without much additional help from the kitchen, which is good because the steak toppings are not the restaurant’s strong suit. The seasoning on the pepper steak was undistinguished; the blue cheese ordered on top of a rib-eye was too salty; the lobster scampi sauce obliterated the filet’s natural savoriness.

Stich also offers an impressive selection of fresh fish, all of it sourced from sustainable fisheries. Try the flaky mahi-mahi, encrusted with slightly crunchy macadamia nuts and served alongside a spicy sweet-potato sauce and tropical coconut vinaigrette. The halibut served with a sweet sun-dried tomato relish and lemon is also a winner. For a place where the vibe and prices emit a pre-recession 2007 feel, it’s encouraging to see a firm 2010 commitment to sustainability.

Where Shanahan’s deviates most from standard steak house fare is in the list of starters and sides. While all the dishes are familiar, Stich tweaks them in a way that transports them beyond the ordinary. Some of the best include the jumbo lump crab cake, made from plump, succulent hunks of crab, served atop roasted tomato sauce and alongside a tangy blue cheese, tomato, and fennel relish; the Wagyu beef satay that comes with a sweet and spicy soy-ginger dipping sauce; and the creamed spinach blended with surprising bits of goat and cheddar cheese, bacon, and springy green onions (although the dish sounds rich, it manages to retain its essential spinach-ness).

Another dish in the sounds-overwhelming-but-isn’t category: the truffle cheddar mac and cheese. Stich know his limits when it comes to truffle oil. He uses just enough to give the cheesy noodles an earthy appeal without overwhelming them and then finishes things off with a crispy sprinkle of toasted breadcrumbs.

When Stich doesn’t show this kind of restraint, the dishes suffer. His beet salad was awash in thick balsamic reduction and studded with far too much goat cheese to enjoy. The burrata cheese in the tomato-burrata salad exhibited more salt than sweet. And the rich lobster bisque had us setting down our spoons long before the bowl was empty. These missteps may be a sign that Stich is reaching a bit too far as he works to find his mark of distinction.

One feature that is consistently—and impressively—pleasing at Shanahan’s is the service. The waitstaff’s timing is excellent; their food knowledge impressive. Even better, the servers are real people underneath that black uniform. Their warmth is especially noticeable given that this is a big place. On a busy evening, the dining room can be slammed with 350 orders, all needing to be explained, taken, delivered, and managed within a three-hour time period. Somehow the waitstaff—and the kitchen crew—pull it off.

While I personally would like Shanahan’s to reach a little farther on its drink list (which relies on cocktail clichés like margaritas, mojitos, and Cosmopolitans) and dessert menu (which leans on the predictable favorites: bread pudding, Key lime pie, and cheesecake), I understand why Stich & Co. don’t. As a steak house, there is tradition to uphold. And Shanahan’s does uphold it, while also offering regulars a hint of something new.

A bit of restraint on the menu is all it would take for the steak house to find the sweet spot it’s looking for: the elusive middle where traditionalists and food snobs can dine at the same table. Shanahan’s is very close, and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before the restaurant—with Stich at the helm—gets there.