Thursday, May 23 2013 06:41 PM

PETE TITTL: Like a fine wine, eatery has matured

BY PETE TITTL Contributing columnist pftittl@yahoo.com

New restaurants change as the years go by, ideally for the better. Steak & Grape is one of those restaurants.

I wasn't that impressed during my first visit after it opened two years ago, but I felt it had potential. It's improved in a lot of ways since then, with an impressive Sunday brunch, First Friday wine and beer tastings ($20, including appetizers), better service and now a new menu that has some tempting and satisfying choices, such as sea scallops chardonnay (available as an appetizer or dinner), four different types of soft-shell tacos, a fish sandwich made with tilapia and a Bolognese pasta ($13.95) made with sauteed beef and mushrooms.

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STEAK & GRAPE

4420 Coffee Road

588-9463

steakngrape.com

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Monday, 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; Sunday brunch 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reservations recommended.

Prices: Appetizers, $8.95 to $14.95; soup and salad, $3.50 to $15.95, burgers and sandwiches, $11.95 to $15.95; pastas, $11.95 to $19.95; steaks, $19.95 to $47.95; chicken, $13.95 to $16.95; seafood, $15.95 to $39.95; "chef's favorites," $14.95 to $34.95; Child's plate, $5.95.

Payment: MasterCard, VISA, American Express, Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.

Dress: Casually dressy

Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; full bar service; some vegetarian options.

Food: ***1/2

Atmosphere: ***1/2

Service: ***1/2

Value: ***

Next Week: Wiki Wine Bar & Grill

I almost ordered that pasta, but was unable to resist another of the new menu items, the macaroni and cheese made with a 5-ounce lobster tail ($19.95). Mac and cheese with shellfish has been a trendy choice for a long time now, but I like the way they do it here. The meat is popped out of the shell and presented on top of the pasta, giving you the option to enjoy it separately or cut it up and mix into the three-cheese sauce. I think they're being conservative on the size of the tail -- it looked more like a 7-ounce portion to me. And the cheese sauce was one of the best I've ever sampled: not heavy, with a garlicky breadcrumb crust on top and some shaved Asiago strings, almost like an Alfredo sauce without the heavy cream gooeyness. It's a graceful, smooth, succulent cheesiness that will not leave you with a dairy hangover. The pasta is actually penne, not macaroni, but the shape works well with the sauce. The good news for those who don't like lobster is you can get this plain ($13.95) or with chicken breast ($18.45).

My companion chose the fish tacos ($11.95), and while she didn't care for the Cajun spice combination used to season the very fresh fish, she was completely wowed by accompanied the tacos: a long-grain white rice with the thinnest, shortest strips of carrot and some additional wild rice. Sure it could've been the ingredients, but she wondered if it was merely the butter mixed in -- not too much in my opinion. But we all know a cardinal rule of most restaurant kitchens: Butter makes everything better. And my companion also loved the cold white beans -- fragrant with garlic and quite irresistible -- served with the sourdough rolls when we were seated.

For dessert, we tried a new selection, whipped cream & berries ($8.95), presented in a parfait glass with a base of real whipped cream crowned with raspberries, blackberries and slivers of strawberries, topped by more whipped cream and a crisped ladyfinger cookie sticking out like a straw. A sweet finish without any diet-busting guilt.

There are other items on the menu that I've enjoyed in the past and can recommend, though I avoided them this time because they weren't new. I love the herb- roasted artichoke chicken (lunch, $14.95; dinner, $16.95) with its creamy mushroom sauce, the prime rib with the garlic-rosemary crust ($19.95 to $29.95, depending on size), the salmon-avocado-artichoke hearts salad ($15.95) and the braised short ribs with a fantastic red wine sauce ($27.95). The lunch menu (20 choices, all $9.95) is filled with good options.

Business was strong on the weekday night we visited, with two-thirds of the tables occupied by a variety of customer types. One family with four young girls was having a birthday party for a child, and there were also customers using the ample patio area.

We love the classy yet unintimidating atmosphere, though my companion noted one improvement she'd make is to lose the carpeting (hard to keep it free of crumbs at all times) and go with the more classy big tile floor look of Mama Tosca's. I think that something like that may be in the cards if the restaurant's success continues.

We haven't always had the most polished service, but I have to say our waitress, Kyra, is a real asset. Not only is she pleasant, professional and efficient, but she has a sort of Southern charm that makes us want to return. She was knowledgeable about the menu, handled so many tables with such ease that she was truly a value-added part of our dining experience.

Steak & Grape can be recommended for a fine dining experience.

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