I suspect that Betsy finds gambling to be vulgar, if not downright sinful. I considered explaining to her that all business is a risk and even supermarkets gamble when they offer a certain product at a heavy discount -- and perhaps even take a loss -- to attract business. Those sale items are known as loss leaders; the gamble is that by advertising them at a seductively low price, the store will lure customers who will buy many nonsale items, thereby generating a profit for the store.
Restaurants have played this game for years, most often with coupons ("Buy one meal, get another of equal or lesser value free!"), which do a good job of bringing people into a venue for the first -- and usually last -- time. They're loss leaders, all right -- particularly for servers, because the customers who use them often tip only for the dinner they actually paid for.
Rare is the dining venue that can really afford to be competitive by serving decent food at inexpensive prices. But that's what's happening at The Journey Wood-Fired Steaks, the dinner-only restaurant at the newly renovated Argosy Casino. Over the past few months, the casino has given itself a $105 million face-lift; the two-month-old Journey replaces the former Constellations restaurant. Looking at the menu for the first time, I figured the whole place was a loss leader for the casino. My friend Ned, who works in an expensive local restaurant, had the same reaction. "These steaks are way below market price," he said, peering at the list of entrées. "These are prices from three or four years ago."
We could only assume that the place existed as a culinary convenience for gambling patrons who wanted something a little snazzier and more intimate than the all-you-can-eat Terrace Buffet. But the restaurant's general manager, Greg Personalli, puts his cards on the table. "Our goal is to get more than just customers who come to play in the casino," he says. "We want the diners who usually drive to the Outback Steakhouse or the Lone Star Steakhouse. There's not a lot of competition for steak business north of the river, so we're keeping our prices moderate and our quality high so that those customers will come here instead."
This is a chance for customers to win against the house, because The Journey's food and service are a few notches above the modestly priced chain steakhouses, but the prices are just as cheap. And it's been designed with a surprising amount of good taste and sophistication.
Personalli calls the restaurant's décor a paean to "Northwest African," whatever that means. No one is going to walk past the exterior's swaying "grasses" made of rusting rebar and think Morocco or Tunisia, despite the vaguely tropical shirts worn by the pretty, ivory-skinned hostesses. The servers are equally beautiful -- our favorite, a former Sprint employee, looks like a male version of Cameron Diaz -- and they dominate the interior décor like chiseled totems. None of them knows why the steakhouse was named The Journey ("I keep asking the managers, but no one seems to know," said the Diaz look-alike), though Personalli admits that a committee came up with the name after everyone agreed that a visit to the dining room "should be like taking a journey."
It's not the most enthralling story, but at least my experiences there weren't the trips to culinary hell that I've endured in other area casinos. The Journey doesn't pretend to be glamorous or swanky. Still, little details give it some class: The uncloaked tables are spacious and comfortable; the napkins are brick-colored linen (and they match the walls); the bartenders know how to mix a potent martini; and dinner prices include baskets of warm, fragrant sourdough bread -- as well as salads, a vegetable and a baked potato, steak fries or white-cheddar mashed potatoes.
The menu is limited, but we felt as if we'd hit the jackpot, particularly with two generous appetizers: a heaping plate of golden, crunchy fried calamari, artichoke hearts and zucchini slices (four of us couldn't finish it), and an interesting variation on escargot -- the plump, garlicky snails were wrapped in a pale sheath of marinated chicken breast and came with wedges of toasted baguette.
However, I much preferred the house salad to the Caesar, which I found soggy and tasteless both times I sampled it. For its part, the house was a crunchy jumble of cold iceberg lettuce with the usual accompaniments on a salad plate that was too small.
In fact, the plates in general are all wrong. The faux Fiestaware platters should be kept heated, because the kitchen struggles with making sure that the beef and spuds stay hot before they arrive at the table. I wasn't surprised that the mashed potatoes were lukewarm; that's a recurring problem in most restaurants. But they tasted more like glue than like cheddar cheese. And am I the only one hoping that the vogue for flavored mashed potatoes is almost over? Now that I've sampled everything from curry to wasabi mixed with my mashers, I just want to eat them naked, hot and drenched in butter.
On the night that Bob and I dined at The Journey, he ordered the 10-ounce Padrone sirloin, fascinated by its Italian name. "What does it mean?" he inquired of our server, who didn't know. She asked the chef, who -- surprise! -- didn't know, either. I knew that the root word, padre, meant father, but it wasn't until later, when I asked my bilingual Aunt Josephine, that I discovered padrone's negative connotation. "A padrone was a landlord or a boss," she snapped. "Or a con artist!" But the rich sirloin was no hoax. "It's not as tender as a fillet, but it's a lot more flavorful," Bob said. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a beautifully prepared, supple salmon.
On another visit, we brought Ned and Betsy. This time, Bob ordered the 8-ounce Bulgaro fillet, which was exceedingly tender but not in the same league as Ned's luscious 18-ounce ribeye. Betsy ordered a 12-ounce strip, but was too polite to tell me until days later that it had been overcooked. "But I think the timing of the kitchen was off that night," she said diplomatically. "I was really pleasantly surprised by the restaurant, since that type of place is really not my style." Unfortunately, the half-chicken that I'd ordered wasn't my style, either -- it had been smoked slowly until the skin had turned a rich, mahogany brown, but alas, it was too dry.
Although none of the desserts are made on the premises, Personalli says that will change when the casino completes a bakery planned for its mezzanine. "We do have catered desserts," our server informed us as he brought a wedge of fudgy triple-chocolate cake for us to share. It was pure sugar, but Ned liked it.
"I like the whole experience," he said. "I'd come back here if they'd work out some of the little problems. The plates need to be hot, the food needs to be hotter and the wineglasses definitely need to be bigger."
He looked down at his tiny glass of Trichero Cabernet. "That's not a glass -- it's a thimble! And for $8!"
So not everything at The Journey is a bargain. But there's no need to be vulgar about it.