Prime Time 

An ol'-fashioned steakhouse comes to Grand Avenue.

The Prime Spot is what you might call a study in contrasts. Housed in what at first glance appears to be a onetime doughnut establishment, it sports a sleek interior redesign of burnt-orange walls, a slatted wooden ceiling, indirect lighting, and what can only be described as a retro-Denny's waterfall in a box. A tiny bar in back serves up frosty dotcom-era cocktails in several luminous shades. Chinese restaurant touches accent the decor — a candlelit shrine here, a Lucky Kitty there — and the sound design is purest Rat Pack. The menu, meanwhile, is part-California cuisine, part-TGIFridays, but primarily good ol' American steakhouse.

This is one of those family-run storefront operations that make the Bay Area such a heterogeneous place to dine in, but instead of serving up wontons or pupusas or fish and chips or some other jealously guarded recipe out of the generational archives, the Prime Spot specializes in the more mainstream pleasures of prime rib. "It was my nephew's idea," says co-owner Kevin Wong, who runs the venue with chef/nephew Daron Cheng, formerly of Skates in Berkeley. "He was born in Oakland and he lives here, and he's always wanted to run a steakhouse, a place where you could get prime rib. You can't get prime rib around here." A few days after the place opened last October, Warriors coach Don Nelson ate at the restaurant next door. "When he came out I told him that I knew he'd take the Warriors all the way. He asked me what sort of food we served — he thought we cooked chow mein or dim sum or something — and I said prime rib. He came in the next day and he's been back fifteen times."

Prime rib has that effect on people. In its finest form, a top-grade standing rib roast is well-marbled with fat (that's where most of the flavor comes from), roasted a good long time in a slow oven till rosy and tender, sliced into steaks and served with horseradish sauce, a billowy Yorkshire pudding, a crisp bowl of greens, and an earthy, full-bodied Zinfandel. This is the exemplar served nightly at the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco and a few other highly specialized establishments around the region (note to self: Monday night is Prime Rib Night at the Buckeye in Mill Valley), but a truly memorable prime rib — lusty, rich, dripping with endorphins — is a rarely encountered experience.

The Prime Spot doesn't deliver at this elevated level; there's a mildly institutional, even perfunctory quality to the house prime rib that's reminiscent of a hotel banquet. But it's tender and juicy if not mood-alteringly splendid, and at these prices — $16 for the Lake Cut (half a platter of red meat), $18 for the Grand (bigger), $22 for the Prime (still bigger), $26 for the Chef (a perfectly adequate meal for a family of four) — it's a bargain. A better bet is the blackened prime rib at the same tariff. Here the meat is rubbed with an array of spices, then seared, so the flavors are etched into every bite; the result is lush and peppery at the same time.

The Prime Spot isn't just about prime rib. The best dish on the menu is a three-bone rack of lamb that's marinated in garlic, herbs, and Dijon mustard, grilled and then roasted in a coating of seasoned bread crumbs; every bite is a sweet, smoky, pungent delight. Also delectable is the eight-ounce filet mignon; although like the prime rib it isn't up to the high standards set at, say, Ruth's Chris (where, a friend theorizes, "the meat is cooked in butter and crack"), it's creamy and supple and wrapped up in nice smoky shards of bacon, always a plus. All entrées are served with the same steamed broccoli and lukewarm mashed potatoes, adding to the establishment's institutional ambience.

Kicking off the meal is a selection of appetizers familiar to any roadhouse habitué: Buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, chicken strips, and the like. The Parmesan garlic zucchini is a health-conscious update on the fried zuke available at county fairs and carnivals; here the vegetable filets are thick and juicy and the breading is light, crisp, and peppery. The Fiesta calamari — a generous platter of fried squid in several sizes — is fresh and crunchy and nicely complemented with a chilled tomato salsa and a dollop of chipotle-infused aioli. The crab and artichoke dip tastes as white as it looks, with little or no crab or artichoke discernible in its gooey depths. But the New England clam chowder is hot, creamy, robust, and spicy — the perfect aperitif on a winter's evening.

The housemade key lime pie was unavailable on two different occasions, but we did try the cheesecake, a standard example of the genre perked up with a lip-smacking mango puree, and the crème brûlée, which tasted like vanillla pudding with a chewy epidermis.

Service at the Prime Spot is friendly and attentive (the whole family pitches in on the hosting, waiting, and busing). While the wine list is on the minimalist side, the bar's signature cocktail, a vodka-raspberry concoction, is pleasantly brisk and tart, a nice change from the candy-flavored drinks so prevalent hereabouts. Two caveats: our Guinness was served ice cold, a tastebud-numbing crime against this most luscious of brews, and (even worse) our martini arrived at the table just this side of tepid. Steaks and prime rib deserve the companionship of a perfectly dry and frigid martini.

Even though the Prime Spot doesn't deliver the mood-enhancing red meat available at Vic Stewart's or El Raigon, it's nice indeed having a reasonable facsimile at reasonable prices near the shores of Lake Merritt. "My philosophy is to get to know the neighbors," says Kevin Wong, "and they've welcomed us with open arms. They want us to stick around because they're tired of going to Walnut Creek or San Francisco for a steak." 


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