Our food critic earned some culinary Capital, and now he intends to spend it.

Capital Spending 

Our food critic earned some culinary Capital, and now he intends to spend it.

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She had barely made a dent in it when dinner arrived. I was already stuffed and looked cross-eyed at a plank of seared salmon in a delicate mustard sauce. Amazingly, though, I got a second wind and polished off half of it. Lorraine had chosen that night's special, a 22-ounce Delmonico steak coated in a jolting rub of finely ground espresso, sea salt, sugar and spices. We all wound up sampling tender slices of the flavorful beef while waiting for Cynthia's filet to come back from the kitchen. She had ordered it medium, but it had arrived medium rare, with the traditional seared surface and a modestly red center.

If there's one shortcoming to the Capital Grille -- besides the fact that, as Cynthia cannily observed, the clientele seems to consist primarily of George W. Bush contributors -- it's that chef Ray Comiskey's kitchen has its own distinctive opinion on how to cook meat. Clearly his staffers favor the rare side, rebelling against the Midwestern belief that beef, veal and pork should be "safely" cooked until all the flavor and juices are drained out. They may be right, but if a customer wants a medium steak, she should get it. And eventually, Cynthia did -- the returning filet was, it turned out, deliciously done, a perfect medium.

That night's finale, a "molten chocolate truffle cake" was bittersweet and sensually good, but not half as wonderful as a surprisingly light coconut custard tart buried under a cloud of whipped cream.

"A wonderful meal," Lorraine noted on the way out, "but extremely noisy. I feel like I yelled all night."

I discovered the antidote to that problem on my second visit: Table 5. It's a booth tucked behind a little waiter's station (piled with too many accessories) that buffers the noise level considerably. I was actually able to have a quiet conversation with my friend R.Z. over a silver platter of cold jumbo shrimp and, after some careful cooking negotiations with our waitress, Jevene, the 14-ounce steak au poivre that R.Z. insisted be cooked medium rare. But leaning toward the medium side.

"We call that medium plus," Jevene revealed.

R.Z. announced that it was exactly as he wanted it, moist and pink. A Courvoisier-laden cream sauce covered its crisp, peppery crust, and an accompanying copper dish was loaded with buttery roasted mushrooms.

"Perfect," he sighed, "but much too rich." He could eat only half of the steak. I, of course, took no time to devour every bit of my splendidly cooked veal chop, which was dripping with a butter sauce discreetly flavored with Roquefort cheese. I was disappointed that the mountain of cottage fries and onion strings (enough to feed a family of ten) had hot spuds but lukewarm fried onions, though that probably kept me from eating more than I should.

I wasn't so disciplined when I saw the fat wedge of cheesecake that R.Z. ordered and, after two bites, pushed in my direction. "Excellent but too decadent," he proclaimed. "I'd gain 15 pounds if I took another bite." I ate the rest of the silken, fluffy cheesecake myself and didn't feel one bit guilty.

However, the $135 dinner bill -- for two, no booze! -- was massively guilt-inducing. But then, on my way to the front door, I passed the pretentious display of not-so-private wine lockers (with a $350 yearly rental fee) owned by a dozen or so rich local celebs. That's when I realized that the Capital Grille, with all of its affectations, is all about show business. For folks who can afford the price of admission, it's a very good show.

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