Up here on the far north side of the Valley, the dining choices are somewhat limited. I had heard that a place called Waverly’s Steak House, in the Cannery Casino and Hotel, is one of our “best-kept secrets.” Hey fellas, guess what? If you have a restaurant, this is not such a good thing. That might explain why, in spite of the excellent dinner I had, you can shoot a cannon through this dining room on a weeknight.
Hopefully, this will help get the message out. Given the quality and price point, this has to be one of the best deals in town. The menu spans several decades by serving retro stuff like beef Wellington and veal Oscar, but also goes fusion on us by offering a spot-on take on goi cuon (Vietnamese spring rolls) and crab Neopolitan (I think it’s meant to be crab Napoleon).
As to the room and service, they are, as deposed Cardinals coach Dennis Green uttered, who we thought they were. My knowledgeable and efficient waiter, Frederic, sort of did a double take when I muttered something about the wine list being weak, but I could tell he agreed with me in principle. Local chef William Koceja’s food deserves more wine options than stuff like William Hill Cabernet, which is on the shelves at any Smith’s.
And the room, though workmanlike in design in that way that casino steak-house dining rooms tend to be, is pleasant enough. Lighting is soft amber, and the semi-circular booths are swathed in coral velvet upholstery. Most of the dishes are rolled out grandly on a cart, something you don’t even get in Strip steak joints that charge nearly twice the freight you will pay here.
Koceja is a protégé of chef Charlie Palmer, and like his mentor, he serves lots of “guy food,” meaning substantial portions, intense reductions and lots of meat. One exception to this rule are the goi cuon, or Vietnamese spring rolls, two rice noodle sheets rolled in shredded chicken and shrimp, with lettuce, mint, cucumber and cilantro. These are never deep-fried like conventional egg rolls, and when dipped in the duo of side sauces, peanut or red chili, they make the perfect appetizer.
In practice, I went for the she-crab soup, which in Charleston where the dish originated is filled with the red roe of the female crab. You will get this dish at Louis’, or Fish Camp in Town Square, two new restaurants specializing in South Carolina’s Low Country fare, but this dish, while delicious, ain’t it. You will get top-notch crab bisque, coral pink like the booths and velvety smooth. If you’re a rebel, though, this may be cold comfort.
Order the Caesar salad with confidence, as well. The chef isn’t afraid of anchovies, and the dressing is both creamy and penetrating. Yep, this is guy food all the way.
Entrees have lots of range. Hurry, and you’ll dine here in time for the November special, beef Wellington. The sign by the restaurant entrance describes the dish as “filet mignon wrapped in puff pastry with a duxelle of mushroom.” We know better.
Traditionally, the pastry is smeared with foie gras, goose or duck liver that has been banned in many cities. Few American restaurants today do it that way, but rather serve a politically correct version of the dish, substituting mushroom pate for foie gras. Bravo to Chef Koceja for not bowing to political pressure. He does give you mushroom duxelle, or pate, all right, but manages to sneak in a little foie gras as well.
About veal Oscar: The dish is an exercise in overkill, invented by some Dane. Picture a pounded medallion of veal, sautéed with asparagus and crab meat, topped with Bearnaise. That giant sucking sound you hear comes from your right ventricle. Instead, try the chef’s masterful braised short ribs, as soft as pudding, splashed with a red wine demi-glaze. The sides here, such as creamed spinach and Yukon Gold Lyonnaise potatoes, are nice, too.
The menu has a few other surprises. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the restaurant’s version of Surf and Turf, New York steak and scampi, but the soft-shell crabs piccata were great.
Duck breast is prepared à la bigarade, with a classic orange sauce. This chef is hip, but no chef in town seems to want to give you duck with olives, turnips or a tart sauce.
Instead of the duck, have one of these choice desserts. The three best desserts on the menu just happen to be the ones you get in the dessert sampler for two, and I’ll be dreaming about this platter for a long time to come. Large portions of a strawberry shortcake layered with thick cream and juicy berries, a chocolate waffle s’more and one of the best crème brulees in town add up to one of the best dessert plates in the city.
Now, if we can just convince the management to beef up that wine list.
Waverly’s Steak House
Inside the Cannery Casino and Hotel, 2121 E. Craig Road. 507-3805. Open daily at 5 p.m., service until approximately 10 p.m. Suggested dishes: goi cuon, $7; she-crab soup, $8; soft-shell crabs piccata, $24; braised short ribs, $23; dessert sampler for two, $12.99.