An ambitious menu with plenty of options, steaks the size of brontosaurus burgers, food that mostly hits the mark for quality and execution.
Oh, and then there's the condition known to medicine as a "food coma" that could hit without warning. Same with the price tag when you add it all up – digits that will make your credit card statement look more like a car payment.
It all takes place in the wonderful/bizarre world of Red Hawk Casino, where all those donations, alas, are not tax-deductible. If you're looking to grab any or all of this experience, here's how I would do it:
Put on your nylon tracksuit. Yes, the one you wear for all-day excursions to the outlet malls. You will neither be under- nor overdressed, somewhere in that sweet spot of status quo. Get a cash advance or a payday loan, because "savings" is something you used to have before you thought you were smarter than those chumps who run casinos.
Near Placerville, take the exit off Highway 50 that is devoted to Red Hawk Casino. Follow the twisting road till you arrive at the massive multilevel parking structure. Allow a moment for your eyes to wash over the expanse of the casino, the sheer bulk and beauty, and ask yourself, "Man, how in the world do they pay for all this?"
Watch the signage closely in the parking structure. The message will likely say "full," meaning your friends are already taking some gullible blackjack dealer deep.
Work your way somewhere below sea level to find an open parking space, then get in line for an elevator up to the casino. Step out onto the main level and take a deep breath – good old- fashioned cigarette smoke, like it's 1977 all over again.
With a Marlboro Red dangling from your lips, feed the slot machine or bluff at blackjack till you're down to your last $432, which will let you and three friends dine as I did on a recent excursion to Henry's Steakhouse.
Follow your host through the well-appointed dining area to one of the many booths. Squeeze in and sit extra-close to your date because, hey, there's something really romantic about overeating.
Look around. Some of your fellow diners will be wearing the same tracksuit and possibly the same concert T-shirt. Or, if you want to look ridiculous, do as I did and throw on a coat and tie.
I don't really have a handle on the zeitgeist of California casinos, and I cannot actually explain why people would visit Red Hawk to drop hundreds of dollars on steak and lobster when they could be paying it forward at the slots.
My job is simple: Sit down, dissect the menu and order something I could not possibly finish in a single sitting, then finish it anyway. Oh, and feign interest when a waiter brings a raw slab of meat to show what a giant "bone-in" rib-eye looks like. That's easy: It looks like the steak that tipped over Fred Flintstone's car.
Steakhouses are masters of hyperbole, exaggeration and, well, redundancy. Only at a steakhouse can you find the words "colossal" and "jumbo" on the menu under the heading "Small Plates." All the colossal small plates cost less than a tank of gas.
Look around and notice the gawkers at nearby tables as the waiter walks past with a giant lobster or jumbo shrimp. Then order side dishes priced separately from the steak. That way the bill rises astronomically, but without you really noticing.
During one visit, where we rendezvoused with an engaging Placerville couple, Bill and Lois Fuser, our appetizers included oysters ($14), which were raw and tasty, and two large duck ravioli ($12), which were very nearly and definitely not. Almond sage butter and pomegranate glaze notwithstanding, the severely undercooked ravioli was a mess no one dared devour after the first grimacing nibbles. Throw in some pretty fair crab cakes ($16), and the money is only just beginning to fly out of our pockets.
Part of the unwritten code of steakhouses is that ordering something sensible can come off as prissy and self-important, thus, ridiculous, as we found out when my GF got the extremely pricey 5-ounce Wagyu filet mignon ($37) with DNA lineage that can be traced to the famous/ notorious Kobe cattle in Japan. That was in lieu of the merely American filet mignon, which would have seemed like ordering a Diet Coke at a wine bar.
Regular readers may know I have an obsession with Wagyu/Kobe beef, renowned for marbling and tenderness, but I have yet to have one locally that is noticeably superior to more pedestrian strains of beef.
Next to my 26-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($42), this Wagyu filet looked like a kiddie portion. Penciled out, it's much more impressive: $118.40 a pound. The steak seemed even smaller when it arrived at the table sitting alone on a large white plate. Onto that plate we shoveled a variety of sides: mac and cheese, cheese fries, tempura asparagus and, the highlight for flavor and texture, the sautéed mushrooms. Those sides were all $8 and we managed to share.
Our server wanted to tell us about the provenance of the beef at Henry's, but she kept fumbling the farm's name. When she finally got it out, it was 90 seconds of awkwardness to tell us about a ranch no one's ever heard of. I remember it now, only because of the inordinate amount of gristle in my $42 steak. The massive rib-eye was beautiful beef, as thick as the phone book with perfect color, charred on the outside and pink in the middle. But the gristle was an issue.
There are several etiquette options when you want to remove the offending gristle from your mouth. I went with the sure thing, blurting out, "Oh my God, I think that's Omorosa from 'The Apprentice,' " and when everyone turned to gawk, the gristle disappeared into a napkin. They called me Mr. Smoov in junior high for a reason.
Bill went with the can't-miss prime rib, 14 ounces for $25, which was still reasonable, though we had the same prime rib at The Distillery in midtown for half the price. This large slab of beef was nicely cooked and, judging from how Bill's focus turned from chatting to devouring, it tasted as good as it looked.
Lois is an adventurous person all-around, and eating is no exception. She went with the venison and it, too, was close to lovely. Mild and clean in flavor with no distractions on the palate. Another winner. Hunters will tell you that wild deer will have a gamey taste and that the finish on the palate can often suggest the berries the animals consume in the forests. This farm-raised venison was much milder.
Try though I did, I did not finish my rib-eye. Had I worn trousers with an elastic waistband, I might have given it a shot, and wouldn't have felt so overdressed (though I must note: the male servers wear blazers).
The wine list at Henry's is extensive and relatively balanced for price and variety, with plenty of big reds to pair with big beef. We all enjoyed the relatively complex and balanced 2006 pinot noir from Irony Wines, with nice cherry notes and a bit of pepper. The wine is made with grapes grown in the Russian River Valley.
Desserts were merely fair – and pricey. Our chocolate bombe was a thick and rich cake, but the ho-hum flavor didn't warrant the $9 price. The "sweet confection" chocolate sampler, also $9, was on the skimpy side and did little to impress. We've had far superior chocolates at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates on L Street in midtown.
I am sometimes bewildered by the machismo of many steakhouses – how eager and obvious they are about being big and badass.
Henry's is no exception. The food was mostly good and the menu certainly gives plenty of options. But the price and fanfare are simply not my thing.
If it is yours, and if you think you have a system that will finally let you clean out this casino and retire to some exotic island, you might factor in a visit to Henry's somewhere along the way.
1 Red Hawk Parkway, Placerville
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Full bar? Yes.
Overall: 2 stars (fair)
It must be a challenge to come up with a steakhouse concept that doesn't overdo the macho element and overcharge for grilling meat. The food is mostly good, but this rating is downgraded mostly due to price.
Food: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
Lots of steaks, prime rib, venison. There's even fois gras, escargot and carpaccio. Execution and quality were sound with a few noticeable misses.
Service: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
The waiters are well-trained and fairly knowledgeable, but we weren't bowled over by charisma.
Ambience: 2 1/2 stars (pretty good)
It's a large, nicely appointed room. I graded this one up because there were no elk or moose heads on the wall and no live lobster demos.
Value: 1 1/2 stars (subpar)
Ouch. You just got your credit card statement. Next time, eat crackers and go shopping for jewelry.