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Holy cow

New steakhouse ups the ante for grandiose

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How much does a restaurant need to spend in order to get your attention? Only five years ago a $5 million upfit would have turned heads. Nowadays that's blasé. To really get Charlotte's attention you need to spend roughly $10 million. What does $10 million buy? Escalators and handcrafted, David Yurman-like steel cable stair rails, among other features.

You can find those escalators in an elegantly appointed cavernous, 16,000-square-foot Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, which opened last April with a red carpet party and a stellar guest list. Charlotte's location is the seventh for this restaurant, which is part of privately-owned Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc. With sales of almost $700 million at 260-plus steak houses Lone star is the parent of chains like: Sullivan's Steakhouse, Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon and Texas Land & Cattle (primarily western locations).

Del Frisco's soars: two stories of glass windows clothed in blinds raised at sunset. The main floor, ringed with open booths, has the bulk of the 350 seats. Upstairs is another bar area and terrace-like seating. The basement, which is traversed with fast-moving escalators, has another bar area, a large round private dining room sided with a million-dollar wine cellar.

The wine list is 28 pages long and reads like a wine-auction booklet; and, in fact, according to the General Manager Rick Cheesman, many of these wines have been bought through the years at the lavish Napa Valley Wine Auction. Under "H" -- the list is arranged alphabetically -- is a vertical of Harlan, one of the Holy Grails of California boutique cabernets, an extremely rare wine. Wines are priced accordingly with a considerable number in the upper $1,000 range.

Del Frisco's, in its dark glamour and high prices, is meant to dazzle. Looking around the room, I noticed several expense-account, Blackberry-fiddling tables and a few celebratory ones. In fact, I was asked at the hostess stand what the special occasion was. "Dinner," I offered.

I don't mean to make light of the service. These folks are trained to make sure you have exceptional, unimpeded service. On the menu it requests diners get in touch with GM Cheesman if "we displease you in some way." The only fault I found was the temperature of the plates, which are brought to the table via mitted servers with the direct warning: "Be careful. This plate is hot." Even so, a customer at a neighboring table in a moth-to-the-flame response touched her plate immediately. Ouch.

The menu is straightforward steakhouse fare: sea creatures for apps, land mammals for entrees -- with some variation. In the kitchen is Bob Kalish who has worked at both Sullivan's and at Mama Ricotta's. Cheesman says, "Most of the ingredients here you'll find in your grandmother's cupboard." Well except for the turtle soup, which, as it turns out, is mock turtle and made with beef.

Del Frisco's is known for its shrimp cocktails: marinated, remoulade and traditional. All three preparations can be combined on a platter if requested -- five shrimp in all for $16. Their all-crab cake straddles a luxurious line between nicely done and superior, and taste even better with a dab of tangy Cajun lobster sauce. The Cajun is a proud assertion to Del Frisco's New Orleans roots. Was I expecting something akin to the Sullivan's superlative iceberg wedge salad? I was, but it's not. Better was the Caesar, large enough for a family of rabbits, and laced with the optional anchovies.

But people come for the steaks, and these are shipped in twice weekly, fresh not frozen, and cut thicker than Kal Kardous' accent in the kitchen. Never will the meat be overcooked because the server requests you cut into the meat to guarantee it has been cooked to your specifications. All meats are prime and priced accordingly: $32 for an eight-ounce filet mignon to the instantly disarming $47 for the 24 ounce porterhouse. While the prime strip was impressive, the two thick and juicy porterhouse lamb chops were treated like beef and given a brash pepper-splattered crust, which blurred the distinct imbued flavor of lamb. On the up side, the perfect asparagus was a fine accompaniment to the nicely grilled meats.

The desserts are larger than life. Del Frisco's touts their multi-layered lemon cake, which has an unusual yellow color reminiscent of a cheese wheel and tastes more like cake than lemon. On the other hand, the warm bread pudding with Jack Daniels Sauce is cause to celebrate.

Prime meat addicts with the cash to support their habit and bacchanalian excess have made Del Frisco's a SouthPark hot spot. And why not? Charlotte has exploded with cow palaces catering to the local penchant for meat and potatoes. Besides, restaurants have become the new theater. Some restaurants have gone as far as making the kitchen the stage. Others, fortunately, have realized that, although interesting, watching a well-run kitchen is about as interesting as watching paint dry. No, in these celebrity times, the true drama is in the Prada and Cavaelli clad room. Hey, is that Michael Jordan over there?

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