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Dining: In re-review, Sacramento's Iron Steaks Shines

Originally Published in the Sacramento Bee: Sunday on Apr. 4, 2010

In golf, it's called a mulligan.

While you won't see any at the upcoming Masters, mulligans are a friendly second chance for the casual golfer who: just left work, fought traffic on the way to the course, pulled his shoes on at the trunk of the car, race-walked to the first tee and, after a couple of rushed practice swings and that sudden eerie silence known only to golf and Michael Richards' stand-up comedy, proceeded to slash it pretty much sideways and weak – off a tree and into a creek.

Today, we're going to offer the restaurant review equivalent of a mulligan – a second look, a re-review. Given my experience in a recent visit toIron Steaks, this is a chance to correct the scorecard and provide a more accurate account of how the restaurant is doing now. If the first shot in December went into the rough and led to a bogey, this one went down the middle of the fairway.

The service has significantly improved, led by Stacey Meifert, who presided over our table with poise, personality and skill. The steaks are still quite good, available in a variety of cuts and sizes suitable for sharing. The side dishes, the source of my scorn the first go-round, have gotten noticeably better, too – more flavor, more precision. That bland, watery mac and cheese? No longer. The new version is very tasty, and thicker.

Overall, we walked away with a positive impression that this is a restaurant coming together very nicely. I have worked in restaurants and, in this job, I watch closely how restaurants work (and don't work). It's complicated and ever- changing. You need a system, a commitment, a team – and a leader who can handle the pressure and keep everything moving.

Iron Steaks is lively and fun. With the quality of food, you will not feel gouged. The wine is barely marked up compared with many restaurants and, somewhat amazingly, there is no corkage charge for bringing your own bottle. As owner Bill Taylor told me, if he can't make money on the food, he shouldn't be in the restaurant business.

The improvements at Iron Steaks signal that the folks behind the restaurant are willing to take the necessary steps to get better and compete.

Besides the restaurant's upgrades, there's another reason for the mulligan: My Dec. 6 review did not necessarily come off the way I intended. While some folks agreed with me, others were flabbergasted and some were dismayed, among them Taylor. In a comment seen by many, he wondered why I don't just review the places I like and leave the others alone so they are not crushed by a hostile review.

While that is a discussion for another time, I will say briefly that negative reviews provide a service, too. They help establish a standard. They teach the consumer what to expect and how to spot pitfalls. And they offer a guide to what your expectations might be.

When I opened my laptop that day in early December to begin describing my visits to Iron Steaks,my intention was to write a relatively positive piece. I would highlight the energy in the room, the fun everyone seemed to be having, the excellent renovation of an old space.

And, of course, I would point out a few shortcomings.

Funny thing, when you try to be honest, the results can be unpleasant. They can overshadow all the positives and leave a bad taste – like telling your GF that those white jeans make her look fat, but wait, her hair looks great.

In retrospect, I was harsher than I intended. Still, the facts remained. Readers have the right to disagree with my opinions, but much of what I say is reportage. They're things that actually happened.

A restaurant in this category simply cannot succeed unless the service is friendly, knowledgeable and, most of all, consistent. It wasn't. What I said then: "The young servers need guidance, and that can only come with a seasoned server leading the way."

After that, Iron Steaks hired a consultant to train the servers, the ones I had called "charming but unprofessional." Though the words stung, and I wince as I read them now, I was harsh, I suppose, out of respect for all the good and great waiters around town. This is a competitive business. If I cut the servers slack, my praise for others is diminished.

The consultant's name is Gilbert Lagunas, a veteran waiter who tells me that when he worked at high-end restaurants in Napa, a good night meant $600 to $1,100 in tips.

After Iron Steaks hired him, Lagunas went undercover and did an assessment. While the owner may have been steamed about my review, he was probably aghast when Lagunas announced that he agreed with it.

"I did not see a professional waiter. All I saw was order-takers," Lagunas told me. "If you want to be in the profession a long time, you have to get more knowledge."

Among the things that bother Lagunas is the language that servers at some restaurants use. Way too casual – "Hi guys," "Yeah," "No problem."

He spent two hours a day for six days training the Iron Steaks staff. Not everyone, he said, was interested. But several showed enthusiasm, including Meifert. From what I saw, she is headed toward the upper echelon of servers in town.

And Tara Herrick, who assisted her in the team approach at Iron Steaks, did very well, too. Lagunas tells me Herrick lived in France for a year, has plenty of food knowledge and hopes to enroll in culinary school.

I asked one of my friends to be a challenging customer – not a jerk but someone with plenty of questions. Stacey remained poised and personable. We asked her about cuts of meat, portion sizes, different flavors, about the beer, the wine. My friend even asked what to do with leftover steak – and Stacey had several clever suggestions. What's more, she handled her job with integrity.

The food she served us was very appealing. The 14-ounce rib eye steak ($24.50) was perfectly cooked and, indeed, there was plenty for excellent leftovers (we made quesadillas).

The 8-ounce filet mignon ($21) was also done just right and was clearly a quality piece of meat – very tender, with the distinctive mild flavor of a lean filet.

The thick, hearty hamburger ($10.95) was clearly an upscale version of the popular burgers at Taylor's popular joint, Willie's, a few blocks away.

The shoestring fries? Crisp with nice flavor. The glazed carrots? Nicely done. And, yes, that mac and cheese, a dish I called "soupy" and "bland" in December, has been transformed into something brimming with flavor, with a nice thickness and heft to the cheese. A good mac and cheese may not seem important, but it's a dish everyone seems to be doing these days, so it has to stand out.

The desserts at Iron Steaks are still quite good, my favorites being the zabaglione (Italian custard with berries) and the lemoncello pie.

In the initial review, I concluded by saying "the cooking and the service need to be better" if Iron Steaks is going to stand up to the competition.

Thanks to this mulligan, I can sign off now by happily underscoring the improvements noted above, commending the owner for taking the steps to fix the glitches, and applauding Meifert and Herrick for demonstrating the skill and poise necessary to honor their important but often underappreciated profession.




• 2422 13th St., Sacramento

(916) 737-5115

Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: Accepted

Parking: Designated lot on 13th Street and along street

Full bar? Yes

Vegetarian-friendly: Somewhat