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Monday, April 21, 2008

A visit to Bern’s Steakhouse

1910 MadeiraI'd heard about Bern’s Steakhouse from a few people, so when I was in St. Petersburg last week I made it a point to go across the bridge to Tampa and try the place out. Here's the executive summary: If you're a wine enthusiast, you should definitely give the place a try.

"Over the top" is the phrase that kept coming to mind, from the decor (which I've heard described more than once as "19th century New Orleans brothel"), to the management of their food sources, to the 172-page wine list. Bern's boasts an impressive collection of awards from the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and other magazines, and it's easy to see why.

The restaurant started in 1954 in one small space in a strip mall. As the steakhouse became more and more successful it took over all the other spaces in the mall, and the original location is now just one of several dining rooms. A second story was also added, as well as a huge kitchen space.

After dinner (I'll get to that in a moment), diners have the option of touring the kitchen and wine cellar, and if you're a wine or food geek you should definitely do that. If you do, you'll see the computerized command center; the humongous charcoal grill that can accommodate up to 200 steaks at once; the areas where they bake their own bread; their onion ring production system; and where they raise the sprouts that they put on their salads (from seeds imported from England). At the top of the stairs to the wine cellar is the wines by the glass station, where one busy bartender pours from a selection of around 150 different wines.

Then it's down into the cellar, which isn't fancy but is nonetheless impressive. There are about 100,000 bottles down there and 8,600 different selections, ranging in price from about $20 to $10,000 and in age from centuries-old vintages to quite recent. Bern's backup inventory, which totals somewhere around 500,000, is stored in three different nearby warehouses.

My two dinner companions had mostly gone along to humor me, so I ended up ordering a Martini (regular Bombay Gin, straight up with olives and three drops of vermouth from the eyedropper our waiter carried) and two reds from the by-the-glass list. I chose a Père Anselme Crozes-Hermitage 1978 ($6.50) and a l’Aventure Optimus 2005 ($16.50) to accompany my aged, one-inch-thick Porterhouse, and both wines, while very different, were quite good. The ’78 was medium-bodied and had plenty of fruit still, but paled in comparison to the Optimus, which was huge, rich and satisfying, and an excellent match for the steak. I spent a good, long time with my nose in the glass, inhaling its wonderful bouquet.

I wish I could say that I was as blown away by the food as I was by the Optimus, but it was just a steak. There wasn't anything wrong with it, but it wasn't exceptional, either; I can make a better one at home. Still, it was a very nice meal, and not outrageously priced — my steak was $52.48, and came with French onion soup, a salad, baked potato, onion rings and a medley of vegetables raised at Bern's own organic farm. We didn't have dessert, but if we had we would have gone upstairs to the Harry Waugh Room to select from 39 different desserts and who knows how many dessert wines and after-dinner drinks.

Would I go again? You bet I would, and I'd recommend the experience to any wine lover. Just go with the expectation that wine is the star and food is the accompaniment, rather than the other way around.
J. Silverheels Gray, 10:57 AM


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