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Cork ’N Cleaver
*** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Fantastic food, but too noisy

Cork ’N Cleaver does not look like your typical upscale steakhouse.

With its stucco exterior and array of pottery, cacti and other Southwest knickknacks throughout, it is more like a Mexican restaurant, which makes sense because the chain was born in Scottsdale, Ariz. The motif does not prevent it from being elegant, however, and the service is definitely up to fine-dining standards.

Still, my visits to the longtime steak-lovers’ favorite on Washington Center Road were marred by its design.

For most, dining at a place like Cork ’N Cleaver is reserved for an anniversary, birthday or a special date, and it is during those occasions that atmosphere matters most. During both of my recent visits, I was glad I wasn’t there for a special occasion because they would have been ruined by the incessant noise and parade of people.

The restaurant is sort of quartered off with somewhat separate rooms, and it has a low ceiling. This creates a cozy feeling but does not allow noise to dissipate. During both visits, the roar of the packed restaurant made hearing my fellow diners tough even though we sat at small four-top tables.

But the worst thing I had to deal with was a parade of customers’ backsides passing within a foot of my face for most of one visit. I was seated adjacent to the salad bar, and customers were allowed to line up next to my table while they waited to get to it. I would expect something like this at a Golden Corral, but not here.

If the restaurant is indeed “thoughtfully planned to create the most comfortable, warm atmosphere as one could find outside the home,” as its mission statement says, the management should find a way to keep that from happening.

In spite of its unmistakable steer-head logo and emphasis on beef, the dishes that impressed most at Cork ’N Cleaver were nightly fish specials – wild-caught Alaskan salmon and the parmesan-crusted Chilean sea bass.

The salmon was chargrilled and topped with champagne-dill butter. The fish was flaky, fatty, moist and succulent, but the butter put it in a whole other class of deliciousness. It was slightly sweet and salty and perfectly seasoned without masking its flavor.

The sea bass, prepared like the menu staple parmesan-crusted tilapia, had an almond-brown crust on top that provided a salty edge to the thick fillet of bass. It was so moist, it was practically juicy and was delightfully unctuous.

The steaks were also great. The 11-ounce rib-eye on special could not have been cooked better and was melt-in-your-mouth tender from end to end. The baseball-cut sirloin was about as tender as a sirloin can be with more of that rich, somewhat tinny flavor a hearty chunk of beef should have.

One of Cork ’N Cleaver’s biggest assets is its salad bar. With four varieties of greens, several pasta and fruit salads, and every kind of topping one would want, including hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, anchovies and caviar – yes, as much caviar as you want – it is impressive and becomes a reason you choose to eat there.

Most everything I had before the main courses was fantastic. The signature brown bread made with brown sugar and molasses is addictive, as was the paler sourdough. The whole grilled artichoke appetizer was a rare find and as much fun to eat as it was flavorful with three dipping sauces. The colossal crab cocktail was chock-full of sweet, tender Maryland blue crab, and each bite really tasted like the ocean.

The most disappointing items I had at Cork ’N Cleaver were also appetizers. I had never seen beef Wellington as an appetizer – or main course for that matter – on an area menu before. The five 1-ounce medallions of filet were great, but the pastry dough covering was doughy and underdone. The white wine mushroom sauce on the plate was terribly salty. Someone in the kitchen that night must have had a heavy hand with the salt shaker as the beef and noodle soup was also ruined by too much of it. The noodles were also saturated and overcooked; they crumbled away to the point I could not even identify what kind they were.

After the main courses were gone, there was really only one choice to end the meal – the Mudd Pie. Another Cork ’N Cleaver specialty, this giant slice of frozen mocha ice cream pie had a layer of fudge on top and a dense chocolate cookie crust on the bottom. With a mound of whipped cream and some almond slivers on top, it was perfect.

The service was perfect at Cork ’N Cleaver, and so was most of the food. But before I return, I will ask for a quiet table, one far away from the salad bar and the parade of backsides leading to it.

Restaurant: Cork ’N Cleaver

Address: 221 E. Washington Center Road

Phone: 484-7772

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Steaks and seafood

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Colossal crab cocktail ($12.95), beef Wellington ($10.95), baseball cut sirloin ($18.95), rib-eye ($19.95), salmon ($22.95), sea bass ($27.95), Mudd Pie ($6)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. E-mail him at rduvall@jg.net, call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net, and you can hear Ryan from 3 to 4 p.m. every Thursday on 92.3 FM, The Fort.