This may be a sordid admission — especially on the part of a food critic, but you would normally never catch me at a steakhouse of any kind on my own quarter. Make that quarter K. I find them stuffy, expensive and utterly unexciting. A slab of meat on an unadorned plate? Not my idea of a good time, sizzle or no. Fortunately, there are exceptions, or at least exceptional evenings. Kirby’s Prime Steakhouse, established over 50 years ago in Dallas and just now finding its way to San Antonio, provided such an occasion recently. I haven’t changed my mind about steakhouses in general as a result; the tab for two was over $250 (and that was being cautious), and the food was far from being adventurous (yes, I realize that not every meal needs to seem like scaling Everest). But an environment enlivened by art glass in many forms — cast, chipped, colored — helped to set an upbeat tone, and once the waiter responded to a request to take the meat-locker edge off the temperature, we settled into a pleasant cocoon in which the arrival of warm plates wasn’t greeted with the fervor of liberating troops. (The glass-enclosed wine room has a separate system capable of maintaining a temperature in the high 50°s, so there’s no real need to chill the customers, too.)

Exceptional bread was the first edible arrival to excite: crusty and sourdough-tangy. At first glance, the Oysters Ladybird seemed a little diminutive, but big tastes, including the slightly metallic pungency of saffron-accented leeks, made up for small size — and paired unexpectedly well with a glass of coppery-pink Lucien Albrecht Cremant Rosé. Though we enjoyed the Sonoma Cutrer RRR Chardonnay for its French airs, the Alsatian sparkler also stood up manfully to Kirby’s Parmesan-crusted petite lamb chops. Their dauntingly dark look apart (it’s due to Cryovac aging of nearly four weeks, and all meats receive the same treatment, we were told), the lollipop chops were superbly flavorful and hardly needed the accompanying vodka-laced marinara. We preferred them without, in fact. One of the redeeming features of a steakhouse with its act together is service, and Kirby’s was smoothly hitting on all cylinders this evening. The kitchen thoughtfully split a house salad and a soup of the day, neither of which could be considered dutiful, automatic accompaniments to entrées.

The creamy garlic house dressing packs a punch, and the chef can hardly be accused of soft-pedaling the pungent rose in a bowl of creamy roasted garlic soup. (The soup wouldn’t have suffered from a little lighter touch, I admit, but we weren’t complaining too vocally; its dregs were very good mopped with bits of sourdough bread.) A good wine list is a hallmark of self-respecting steakhouses as well, and Kirby’s is no exception. “California cabernets are our biggest sellers,” says sommelier Sam Miller, and his selections have been tailored accordingly. Yet Miller also says that San Antonians are much more open to wine suggestions than diners in Dallas or Houston, so he keeps a respectable contingent of Italian, French and other worldly wines on hand as well. For the big bottle of the evening, we went straight to France (might know) and a 2004 Gigondas from Domaine de Cassan.

With its combination of cherry-laced elegance and peppery power, this would never be accused of being a New World wine — all the better to bolster its food-pairing prowess. Its first challenge pitted pepper against pepper, in fact. We had picked the 7-ounce Blue Ribbon Pepper Steak (Blue Ribbon is a term invented by Kirby’s owner to give the cut a little cachet; it has no grading significance) in order to avoid the extravagance of a 22-ounce cowboy-cut Prime rib eye or a 16-ounce New York strip — and to get a little Cognac sauce in the bargain. (A Roquefort-sauced filet is another option, as is an unadorned model.) As it was, some of the exquisitely tender filet went home with me (yes, it was very good cold), but while the heat lasted, the generously coated steak (code for cracked pepper) and the wine went mano a mano with neither conceding in the process. A draw, then, but of the best kind.

Unlike steakhouses with loads of lobster and a knee-jerk tuna on the seafood side, Kirby’s has a generously endowed selection, so we decided to take advantage of it. Sommelier Sam has put together an ancillary menu pairing wines with scores of 90 and above with entrée specials, and a butter-poached sea bass did catch the collective eye. But we decided instead to go with the regular menu’s pan-roasted version served over lobster risotto. (It was the risotto that got us, I seem to recall.) Both were good. The bass was thick and properly cooked, the risotto lush with lobster as expected, but the combination did nothing for us. This clash of titans ended in a pyrrhic victory, and I desperately wanted something like an Italian salsa verde for both color and a little palate-provoking excitement.
Any green, however, must be had on the side in typical steakhouse fashion, and ours came in the form of asparagus the kitchen graciously agreed to fry for us (steamed is the default setting) in the manner of the appetizer topped with lump crab and Béarnaise — but without the luxurious toppings.

Crumb-coated and more than enough to share, these were also good cold, by the way. Otherwise, with the exception of a mushroom risotto and grilled vegetables, the a la carte sides are just as you might expect: sautéed spinach, mac and cheese — you know the drill. We saw prodigious slabs of cheesecake being delivered to one of Kirby’s private rooms during the course of the meal, and that visual feasting was enough to push our selection in another, no less indulgent, direction.
However, the Chocolate Trio Cake boasting alternating layers of light and dark chocolates seemed excessive even for us, so the Homemade Chocolate Spice Cake wasselected to usher out the evening. Be warned that it is huge and dripping with pecan-studded ganache. If two of you can finish it after an evening of steak and sides, I’d be very surprised.

I was equally surprised by another aspect of the cake, however: With its complement of cinnamon and coffee flavors, it almost went well with the last, lamented drops of the Gigondas. I’m not suggesting you do this on purpose, but if the pairing should come to pass, don’t shun it. As I am wont to do with steakhouses.

KIRBY’S STEAKHOUSE
123 N. Loop 1604 E.
(210) 404-2221