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The Journal Gazette

  • A bone-in New York strip topped with truffle butter and a side of cheddar-bacon mashed potatoes.

  • Lobster bisque from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • Filet mignon from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • Creme brulee from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • Bone-in Durok pork chop from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • There is a bit of a stodgy, dated look to Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road, but it gives it a charming feel.

  • Parmesan-crusted tilapia from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • Mudd Pie from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road has stood the test of time and remains one of the city's best destinations for steak.

  • Crab cake from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • Grilled scallops from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

  • The salad bar at Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road is the best in the area and features everything from caviar to Jelly Bellys.

  • The thick-cut bacon appetizer from Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road.

Sunday, September 29, 2019 1:00 am

Staple proves why it's survived test of time

RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette

Cork 'N Cleaver

★★★★1/2

Out of a possible five

$$$$

There has been much excitement of late in the Summit City dining scene as the big names that many have been begging to come here have started listening.

Ruth's Chris, Skyline and P.F. Chang's are already here, and Giordano's, Portillo's and Dave & Buster's are on the horizon.

There is one staple – part of a chain that once boasted 80 locations – that has seen fads come and go and is still churning out classic steakhouse fare without feeling the need to rebrand, change the menu every week or flood social media with promotions.

Cork 'N Cleaver on Washington Center Road has been in business more than 40 years, and it is one of just three still in operation, the others in Evansville and Fargo, North Dakota.

It still has no peers in many areas. You will not find a better salad bar within 100 miles and might struggle to find one anywhere that not only offers some of the best fresh-made side salads – the creamy, herb-infused pasta was my favorite – but covers all the bases from caviar to Jelly Bellies.

Sure, its atmosphere is a bit stodgy, but that creates a cozy and familiar feel that makes it a romantic date location, as well as a perfect family gathering place.

The menu is pretty much a fixture – given it is embossed on a giant meat cleaver, it's easy to figure out why it doesn't change often. But the quality of the steaks and seafood and the creative specials make it a place that isn't threatened by new competition.

One special was so good, it deserves a place on the cleaver, and chef Brett Garner said it probably will be a permanent addition soon. The thick-cut bacon with maple and black pepper was phenomenal.

The slab of smoked and cured pork belly was served over jalapeño cornbread with sriracha drizzled on the plate. The bacon was cooked slow and low to make it tender and still a little fatty instead of fully rendered, but it had just a little crispness from a few minutes under super-high heat at the end, Garner said.

The maple was tempered so the meat was not too sweet, which was a good thing because the cornbread was quite sweet, with the peppers barely being present.

The steak that had the most potential for being great was also a special. I added the truffle butter accompaniment – a $5.95 upcharge – to the dry-aged, bone-in New York strip, but would not do it again because it was too timid in terms of truffle flavor. I asked for it medium-rare, but it arrived pretty much raw, so I sent it back. It was closer the second time around.

The filet mignon was cooked to perfection and was a solid choice, but it was still not as tender and succulent as the strip. The cheddar bacon mashed potatoes would be perfect with either.

I was not as excited about the side with my bone-in Durok pork chop, but it, too, proved to be a vital component. The chops may have been even better than the steaks. It, like the bacon, was a little crisp around the edges, and the fat layer around those edges was rendered beautifully to be like candy.

I also loved the bacon jam garnish, more than any I have tried, because it was so chunky and had the right level of sweetness to accentuate without overpowering. The sweet potato hash was great when smeared in some of that jam.

The seafood at Cork 'N Cleaver all were worth having again. The crab cakes were delicate but meaty, with a nice touch of sweet corn in the crab-heavy mix and a remoulade with a ticking heat to it.

The grilled scallops were perfectly cooked. The parsnip puree they were served on gave off a strong flavor, but the pool of black garlic molasses underneath had the right level of sweetness and garlic zip to keep the parsnips from being obtrusive.

The Parmesan-crusted halibut special had a perfect crust and the fish was plenty moist, but the dish still came off as dry. The polenta served with it was not creamy enough, and it needed more of its roasted red pepper sauce.

I also was not a fan of the lobster bisque. It was much looser than I expected, and despite a nice amount of shellfish floating about and a lot of lobster flavor in the base, the sharp zing of cayenne pepper and that watery broth gave it an almost acidic finish that was not pleasant.

Though the cappuccino I ordered at the end of one meal was a flop, the desserts won me over. The mud pie was beyond reproach with a copious amount of fudge atop the coffee ice cream and toasted almond slivers to tame the sweetness. The crème brulee was executed to perfection, and the layered Lemon Berry Mascarpone Cake had nary a flaw.

All my servers exuded professionalism when it came to their memory and knowledge of the specials, and I was tended to promptly and regularly, but not so regularly it was bothersome.

That service, the reputed salad bar and its long reputation as one of the best steak locales in the city is why Cork 'N Cleaver has seen competitors come and go and why it will likely be here long after some of the new kids in town close up shop.

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 Friday; 4 to 10 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: Bacon ($11.95), crab cakes ($11.95), salad bar ($12.95; $15.95 with soup), scallops ($29.95), strip ($56.95), filet ($27.95 for 6-ounce; $30.95 8-ounce), pork chop ($24.95), halibut ($32.95), mud pie ($7), cake ($7), crème brulee ($6.50), cappuccino ($4)

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

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. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.