Taste Test: The Scuffer Steak & Ale House
148 Church Street, Burlington, 864-9451
I'm not much of a sports fan, so I rarely eat dinner in a room suffused with the green-blue glow from multiple TVs. Those who relish an athletic ambiance will feel right at home at the Scuffer Steak & Ale House on Church Street, formerly The Rusty Scuffer.
For me, though, it was a novelty. While I tried to ignore flashes of really big guys tackling other really big guys, my husband, though not really into sports, either, couldn't look away. "I'm a Cowboys fan from way back," he enthused.
Had he not been distracted by the game, we might have talked about the high-end steakhouse trend that is sweeping the country, and how, as is often the case, Vermont's a little behind the gastronomic times. Pretty much every restaurant, from humble to haute, has a steak on the menu, but there aren't many places that offer a choice of cuts or a significant seafood selection. The Scuffer now does. Vegetarians are not forgotten, though: Meat-free items are designated by cheerful little curlicues. Kids can choose from the usual chicken tenders, hot dog variations and Annie's mac 'n' cheese.
In all my years in Burlington I'd never eaten at the ever-popular Scuffer, but in the week after its rebirth, I visited for lunch and dinner. The interior, which has been completely redone, is still casual enough to accommodate toddlers and their parents as well as dinner-date couples and friends hanging out at the bar. But the Scuffer's service is not yet up to the level of its American-comfort-food appeal.
Sunday-night dinner kicked off with French onion soup and crab cakes. The soup was meaty and sweet, with just the right amount of broth-suspended bread and a nicely browned blend of Swiss cheese and Cabot cheddar melted on top. The crab cakes, which came with a mustard sauce and chunky mango salsa, were rather mushy. And the bold flavors of the sauces outweighed that of the crab.
Next came the most decadent entrée on the menu: a 24-ounce bone-in ribeye with Bearnaise sauce, to which we added a lobster tail for $12.95. The steak was served on the rare side of medium-rare, with a dark-brown sear on the outside and a deep red interior — just how I like it. The lobster meat was plump and tender. We took turns cutting off pieces of meat and dunking them in the pale yellow sauce, which could have used more tarragon and salt but was nonetheless a pleasant accompaniment.
Unlike at fancy urban steakhouses, where sides dishes must be ordered and paid for separately, the Scuffer offers a generous selection of add-ons with each entrée. Ordering one entitles you to a "house" or Caesar salad, extra-crisp steamed broccoli or a "seasonal" vegetable and one of a number of starch options: mashed potato, baked potato, French fries, Cole slaw or rice pilaf. The "loaded baked potato" — topped with strips of bacon, not bacon bits — carries a $1.50 surcharge.
After only one entrée, we were too full for dessert.
On Tuesday, I returned with two co-workers to get a taste of lunch. The food was good, but the service wasn't. Ten minutes after we placed our order, our server asked if we wanted our soups and salad before the main meal. Yep — that's kinda why we got 'em. I had asked if any of the dressings were homemade and, on the advice of the waitress, ordered "Italian" on my salad. It was clearly bottled. (I learned later that several other dressings are, in fact, homemade.) My friend asked if the $12.95 steak sandwich came with anything. The waitress said it didn't, so my friend ordered a side of onion rings. Then the sandwich showed up with fries.
At a newly opened restaurant, it is unreasonable to expect staffers to have all the details down. But they shouldn't be afraid to ask someone who does know.
There was yet another snafu. My other companion ordered a burger, medium, with sautéed mushrooms on top and chili cheese fries on the side. It came with chili on the burger and stark-naked fries. Instead of offering to get another one or take it off the bill, our server said something like, "So, are you gonna eat it?"
The replacement burger arrived sans 'shrooms. The waitress went back to get them. The chili cheese fries emerged after that. Despite the errors and the long wait, nothing was removed from the bill.
How was the food? The surprisingly thick lobster bisque had a mild lobster taste. The steak sandwich, which also featured a meaty portabella mushroom cap, was savory and filling, but the hand-cut fries on the side were flaccid and cool. The chili cheese fries, when they finally came, were sizzling-hot and good. Ditto the onion rings. My stuffed-shrimp entrée featured some of the same mushy crabmeat I'd tasted a few nights before, but the butterflied shrimp underneath golden-brown mounds of garlicky topping were perfectly moist.
We liked the burger, too, which came on a better-than-average bun, toasted.
Here's my wish list for the Scuffer: consistently good service, more homemade salad dressings and a wider array of steak options. The restaurant serves meat that is graded "choice" by the USDA — the second-highest grade available — as do the Sirloin Saloon and the Outback Steakhouse. "Choice" meats are widely available in grocery stores, but the top-grade, well-marbled "prime" is rare.
A few "dry-aged" options would be nice, too. Most meats sold today are wet-aged with chemicals and vacuum-sealing, but dry-aged meat has a deeper flavor and denser texture. My heart rate quickens at the thought of walking into a restaurant and ordering a dry-aged prime Porterhouse.
One thing that works perfectly at the Scuffer: the beer list. Want something rich and dark to go with your steak? There's Bavarian Ayinger Celebrator Dopplebock. Some thing light to accompany a piece of fish? Try the Hennepin Farmhouse Ale. With 15 brews on tap and 20 more in the bottle, there's a hoppy option that'll pair well with anything you order.