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Because I was paying the tab, I cringed when my friends ordered salads, now priced at $6.95, to accompany their meals. It's a stiff price for a less-than-enthralling jumble of greens; even the Caesar was ho-hum. The appetizers are even costlier, but at least they're more visually sumptuous: The steak tartare is piled on a curl of red cabbage, accessorized with dainty toast points, chopped egg, onion and capers. And the four plump crustaceans perched on the shrimp cocktail cost a lot more than a buck ($11.95, to be exact), but what the hell I'm worth it.
Thank goodness for that relish tray, because my vegetarian friends Alan and Debbie had to console themselves with carrot sticks while David, Heather, Bob and I passed around the tartare and the restaurant's signature steak soup. Not that we gave a damn. The soup is still one of the most comforting dishes on the menu, loaded with chunks of beef and vegetables in a soothing, thick stock.
The Plaza III menu, with only a few exceptions, has never changed. It's heavy on the beef, with only a couple of seafood choices and one chicken dish. Debbie does eat fish, so she ordered the Atlantic salmon, which was terrific. Alan is a more stringent vegan, so rather than have him pick from the potatoes or grilled vegetables offered as side dishes, our server told us that the chef would happily custom-make a pasta dish for him. Alan was thrilled with the result, a big bowl of linguini noodles in a fresh tomato sauce heaped with zucchini, broccoli, onions, mushrooms and spinach. "I can't believe they totally catered to my tastes," he said.
I couldn't, either, actually. But customer service is one of the reasons that people adore this place. The attention to detail is very impressive. So are the steaks, tender and juicy and perfectly grilled. Plaza III serves USDA Prime, wet-aged (vacuum-packed in polyethylene, permitting the meat's own juices to age it) strips, porterhouses and T-bones.
"It's one of the best things I've ever tasted," said Heather, who lustily enjoyed every bite of a filet mignon. She wouldn't give me a taste, but I did snag a bite of David's Kansas City strip and Bob's marinated tenderloin brochette. Fantastic!
In the 1970s, Plaza III went through a brief French phase, and the only poultry dish was a béarnaise-drenched "chicken Rochambeau." I prefer the less complicated bird on the current menu, a bodacious double breast grilled with butter and herbs. It's shockingly succulent. The whole dinner just about did me in, but I got a second wind. The best things offered on the dessert list were a giant slab of chocolate truffle cake (which isn't made in the Plaza III kitchen; it's purchased from some food conglomerate) and a goblet of fresh berries layered with chocolate chips and whipped cream.
"This place is an institution," said David, who hadn't dined at the restaurant in decades. "I had forgotten how perfect everything is."
Well, almost perfect. The bathrooms (which are scheduled for a long-overdue renovation in 2006) are practically primitive by Plaza standards. The serving staff at Plaza III are mostly longtime vets and are friendly and polished. But the unsmiling matrons at the hostess station are forbidding, to say the least. When I returned for lunch a few days later, I wasn't sure if I was being escorted to a table ... or the guillotine.