Carla Meyer

Dining review: Thunder Valley's High Steaks high on quality - and price

Two of the three best steaks I’ve had in recent memory were at High Steaks, the upscale steakhouse inside the massive Thunder Valley Casino complex in Lincoln.

They both had been aged for 35 days, seasoned assertively and cooked with great skill. They were thick, tender, juicy cuts of meat and absolutely delicious.

Another detail of note: High Steaks has high prices. These two fine steaks cost $59 and $54, far more than that third great steak I can recall, a $30 rib-eye with an incredibly nuanced pan sauce I enjoyed at Magpie Cafe in 2012.

What’s that you say? You’re not supposed to talk about the price? Part of being a high roller is spending big? For years, steakhouses have wanted you to think that. And for years, it has been a steakhouse tradition that the steak costs a lot and everything else costs more. You order your preferred cut of meat, but if you want a baked potato or something green on the plate, you pay for it.

High Steaks has a more refined and less look-at-me kind of self-promotional vibe than, say, Morton’s, but it is still doing the a la carte steakhouse concept that will bump up your bill significantly if you order without restraint.

But of all the steakhouses in the region, High Steaks may offer the finest all-around dining experience – the food, the polished service, the comprehensive and eclectic wine list, the lovely setting. In many ways, it’s an excellent restaurant. But whether I can recommend it to you very much depends on who you are.

Did you get in on the IPO for Google and see your net worth skyrocket? Do you post selfies on Facebook while standing next to your Lamborghini? Or at least, maybe you just posed, smiling and a tad dumbstruck, with one of those oversized checks with your name scribbled on it after an exceptionally lucky encounter with a slot machine?

Are you into old-school food done really well? And most important, do you really, really love steak?

If that’s you, you will be very happy, if not absolutely giddy, with the food at High Steaks, and you will barely flinch when you realize it will set you back about $100 per person for dinner, including an appetizer like Oysters Rockefeller or bacon-wrapped shrimp, a seriously good steak priced above $50, $9 baked potato, $12 bowl of soup, and dessert.

But if you’re one of those people who has a pile of bills to pay and who looks at incidental things like price tags when you go shopping, the High Steaks experience might scare the daylights out of you. Even the hamburger, that blue-collar staple you eat with both hands, will set you back $29.

During one of my visits to High Steaks, I drove from downtown Sacramento, eventually spying Thunder Valley in the distance, a sprawling oasis in the middle of flat farmland. It has a large hotel, an outdoor concert venue and a gigantic casino complex that includes six bars, four restaurants and a food court featuring Pizza Hut, Beach Hut Deli, Fatburger, Panda Express and Peet’s Coffee. It’s open 24 hours.

When I entered the casino, the first thing I noticed was the smoke (as well as the flashing lights, sound effects, laughter, and hum of a crowd mesmerized by the chance to strike it rich). You can smoke in the casino, but not in the restaurant.

High Steaks, tucked toward the back corner of the casino, is an attractive restaurant, modern and spacious and tastefully appointed without feeling audacious or clichéd. The outdoor patio is lovely, with a large, verdant garden wall. The service staff is polished and friendly, from the warm welcome you receive when you enter to the professional attention you experience once you are seated. At some point in the meal, a manager dressed in a suit is likely to stop by and chat, making you feel appreciated. It is a class act all around.

But once you scan the menu, you may start to feel some class conflict. What, exactly, can you afford? If you’re on a budget and were merely seeking to fill up before heading back for another round of Texas Hold ’em, you may well be thinking about that Pizza Hut sign that caught your eye when you ambled through the casino. But if you’re fat with cash, you’ll be focused solely on which steak is going to make you happiest.

Steakhouses are funny places in that there are certain expectations about what should be on the menu. Take the wedge. It’s really just a piece of iceberg lettuce smothered with with creamy dressing and bacon bits. High Steaks takes this steakhouse mainstay and makes it special, adding plenty of finesse and style to the plating (the wedge is cut into two distinct pieces). The display makes the salad, complete with blue cheese dressing and, of course, bacon bits, marginally more delicious and fun.

The appetizers portion of the menu includes a couple of throwback items that old-school customers will find irresistible. You may be thinking of tuxedo-clad waiters or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency when you spot Oysters Rockefeller on the menu. This preparation, available in two sizes for $17 or $27, includes crispy panko and Parmesan bread crumbs shrouding the piping hot oysters and creamed spinach. It’s a crunchy, rich, luxurious little gem of a dish that whets the appetite for the steak. On a different occasion, I enjoyed the bacon-wrapped shrimp served with a brandy and Dijon mustard sauce.

Then there were the steaks. What to order? If you like tenderness and an abundance of marbling that translates into flavor and richness on the palate, go with the 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye served with a creamy, peppery and beefy house sauce ($54), or perhaps the significantly smaller but heavily marbled Wagyu New York steak ($65). This style of steak, essentially an American version of the famed Kobe beef from Japan, is known for melting away in your mouth and leaving big beef flavor dancing on your taste buds.

A happy medium is the bone-in New York, aged 35 days and beautifully seasoned. Cooked medium-rare and more than 2 inches thick, this was steak at the highest level. More toothsome than the rib-eye but big on beef flavor, the New York is a cut many steak lovers are drawn to because of the distinctive texture and chew. This was the most remarkable of the steaks I had here, mostly because it was so nicely seasoned, and the mouthfeel afforded a hearty eating experience.

For outright luxury, there is the filet mignon. This cut has a mild flavor – too mild for many steak aficionados – but it’s generally the most tender cut imaginable. High Steaks has three options: an 8-ounce or 11-ounce filet served straight up ($42 and $46), an 11-ounce with Gorgonzola/blue cheese crust ($49), and an 11-ounce with bearnaise sauce, lump crab and asparagus ($58).

Then there are the side dishes. They’re extra. Of course they are. Each side is $9. The baked potato comes with a skin seasoned with sea salt. The five-cheese mac and cheese was the only disappointment we encountered on the menu. It was straightforward and underwhelming, visually and flavor-wise. These days, when you see mac and cheese taken to new heights at many restaurants, a toned-down version seems out of step.

The wine list is very thorough and balanced without seeming unwieldy. One night, when I mentioned to our server I was interested in a glass of wine, he directed me to the by-the-glass section of the menu, saving me from fumbling page by page.

What goes with steak? The standard answer is a big cabernet sauvignon. There are plenty of bottles at various price points (except inexpensive). The Seven Falls Cab is a nice option at $12 per glass. It is medium-bodied, has plenty of dark fruit notes, a touch of pepper and finishes rich and clean with soft tannins. Beer is also a good bet with steak, though the craft beer options are not nearly as extensive as the wine list.

The desserts at High Steaks are superb, with classic ingredients paired with modern, innovative preparations. Getting to dessert, however, could be a challenge, given the size of many of the steaks. One memorable choice was the “Banana Misu,” an elegant serving of cheesecake with caramelized bananas and Foster sauce. You also can’t go wrong with the chocolate cake, dubbed “decadent” on the menu.

And if decadence is your thing and the prices don’t make you week in the knees, High Steaks is a steakhouse that delivers a memorable experience. Depending who you are, I can either recommend it with enthusiasm – or point the way to the food court.

***

MORE INFORMATION

High Steaks Steakhouse

1200 Athens Ave.

Lincoln

(916) 408-8327

www.thundervalleyresort.com

Hours: 5-10 p.m. daily, except Friday and Saturday, when it stays open until 11 p.m.

Beverage options: Full bar, extensive wine list, some craft beer.

Vegetarian friendly: Marginally.

Gluten-free options: Yes.

Noise level: Moderate.

Ambiance: Spacious, elegant, modern and luxurious.

Overall * * * (out of 4 stars)

A class operation from top to bottom, High Steaks offers a modern and elegant take on the traditional upscale, big-ticket steakhouse.

Food * * * 1/2

Perfectly cooked steaks of superb quality. The menu offers other dining options, including seafood. The desserts are equally good.

Service * * *

Professional and personable. You get plenty of personality and enough knowledge and input to help you navigate the menu or wine list.

Value * * 1/2

Even with the quality of the steaks, they are very expensive. The most appealing steak options, the bone-in rib-eye and the bone-in New York, are $54 and $59, respectively. The hamburger is $29 and does not come garnished with poker chips. For more of a bargain, try the prime rib dinner Tuesdays for $24.95.

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