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Wednesday, February 6,2013

He Ate, She Ate

Chivalry still reigns at stalwart Lansing restaurant

by Mark Nixon and Gabrielle Johnson
Old school allure
By MARK NIXON

I’m a sucker for old restaurants. In a business where restaurants routinely fade to black, you have to admire a place that has outlasted many of its rivals and a good many of its customers.

The Knight Cap is such a place; one of the granddaddies of fine dining in Greater Lansing. It opened in 1969, a few blocks east of the Capitol, before Michigan Avenue boasted a ballpark or the Lansing Center.

Snug and leather-bound, this is one of those if-the-walls-could-talk places that has hosted generations of lobbyists, lawyers and assorted scoundrels who hatch deals over martinis and thick steaks. The fact that it is next door to a topless bar only adds to the old school allure.

Age is not always kind to institutions, however. My recent visits to the Knight Cap revealed a restaurant that has lost a step.

There is nothing terrible about the food. But not much terribly exciting, either.

The clear winner is the lobster bisque, a staple of the Knight Cap’s limited menu. As the bisque was presented at our table, the server finished it off with a drizzle of sherry straight from the bottle. It was just the right touch to a bisque that is notoriously hard to make.

The seafood chowder was rich with butter and cream, boosted by loads of garlic and an herb we guessed was tarragon. Alas, the chowder was barely warm. Why can’t restaurants get this simple fix fixed?

I also question why you can buy a cup or bowl of bisque and other soups, but the chowder only comes bowl-sized at $12.

And though we were the only ones dining at that time, it was surprising that the server first brought my companion gumbo instead of the chowder. OK, an honest mistake. Then, bread arrived without any butter. OK, an oversight.

But here’s where things got serious. The Knight Cap is known for its steaks. On my first visit, I ordered their “famous” 7-ounce sizzler steak. It arrived closer to medium well done (I had ordered medium rare); tender but quite dry; and worse, not very warm. 

On our second visit, I ordered the priciest steak on the menu ($38) — Tournedos Oscar, thickly cut beef tenderloin medallions topped with crab meat, hollandaise sauce and asparagus. 

Again, I ordered the steak medium rare. Again, it arrived overdone, slouching toward almost-cool, with the juices seemingly wrung out of it. The flakes of crab meat were scant and virtually tasteless. The hollandaise lacked the one-two punch of lemon-and-butter that makes or breaks this sauce.

To be fair, another steak ordered by one dinner companion was spot-on. He ordered the “Greg Norman Wagyu Sirloin.” He sliced into the middle of it and a burst of steam curled skyward. It was juicy throughout, and cooked precisely as ordered.

This night, a Friday, was a dining first for me. My steak-loving friend brought his own steak knife, a wood-handled device whose blade folded like a jack knife. I asked for an explanation, and he replied: “Restaurants give you serrated knives, which shred the steak. I want my steak sliced.”

Hmmm ... I wasn’t going to argue with a man holding what looked like standard issue for Navy SEALs.

On the whole, the dining experience at the Knight Cap was a mixed bag. The Caesar salad (for two) was above average, with the choice of adding anchovies. Every recipe I’ve ever read for a classic Caesar salad calls for anchovies. We opted for those thin, salty fillets that bring salt and sea to the fore. This would have been a top-notch Caesar if more garlic was mashed into the dressing.

We tried two desserts, a New York-style cheesecake and a chocolate torte that, according to our server, had something involving lava. The chocolate kind. The cheesecake was fine — though swimming in once-frozen strawberries — and the torte was a chocoholic’s dream date. None of us got the “lava” thing. Apparently the volcano had gone extinct, because nothing was flowing in, on or around the torte.

A word about our server, Ricque. He has been a fixture at the Knight Cap for 12 years and he probably can recite the entire menu backwards, in his sleep, in several languages. His courtly manner sets a tone of refinement befitting an old steakhouse. He helps you with your coat, both on arrival and departure. He alone may be worth the price of admission for some diners.

Throughout our meal, Ricque was attentive without hovering. This man knows his craft, and pays attention to detail. The kitchen should take note.

No just desserts
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON

Everyone has certain memorable places in their hometown. I remember the two-for-one deal on Quality Dairy ice cream cones that sent my dad, brother and me scouring all the area QDs on Tuesday nights for mint chocolate chip, our favorite. I think of the tantalizing aroma of popcorn and roasted peanuts luring me into The Peanut Shop as I walked by. And I think of my very favorite restaurant, The Knight Cap.

I’ve eaten many memorable meals at The Knight Cap. I’ve celebrated birthdays, graduations and gone on dates — some where the food was a wonderful complement … and many where the filet was the highlight of the evening. The Knight Cap is a Lansing institution, and with today’s trend towards chain eateries, digital news and e-readers, it’s a tradition that we should be wont to promote.

The Knight Cap is nothing if not quirky. The restaurant is seriously small, with a capacity of 52, and the interior is pure '70’s camp — very deep reds and many coats of arms figure prominently. On my latest trip for dinner, I was lucky enough to be waited upon by Ricque, one of the most talented servers I have even encountered.

Ricque is an artist. Some might call him a bullshit artist, and granted, his steady stream of chatter might be endearingly classified as such. He presents himself to you with a flourish and lays himself at your service. He describes the nightly specials in a way that makes you think he hand-chose them, “Tonight, I have a wonderful Greg Norman ribeye.” He compliments the ladies and commiserates with the men. Ricque is an absolute treasure and makes you feel like you’ve just had an experience, not merely dinner.

On this trip I ordered what I always order, as it is one of my favorite meals in the world. I started with a cup of the chicken andouille gumbo, which is not recommended for the faint of heart. The gumbo brings the heat, but not unpleasantly so. A wedge of cornbread is jammed into the thick tomato-y stew. One companion started her meal with the lobster bisque, which is too sweet for my taste but she claims its the best she’s had. Our fellow diner started with a shrimp cocktail, boasting fresh, oversize shrimp that were elegantly presented and which are thoughtfully priced per piece.

The same diner was hypnotized by Ricque’s description of the above-mentioned ribeye and ordered it without even opening his menu. If he had done so, he would have learned that the steak weighed in at a bruising 2 lbs. The eyes of other diners followed my friend’s entrée as it was presented to him, and everyone was treated to a performance rivaling that of John Candy v. the Old 96’er.

The rest of us kept our wits about us and ordered entrées that a normal human being could handle. I requested my petit filet medium well and knew when I sunk my knife into the meat that it was perfectly prepared. I always order this steak — and the ramekin of béarnaise always sits untouched. The flavor of the meat is so delicious that I don’t want any other flavors to compete for my attention.

I ordered a baked potato as my accompaniment, although after the gumbo and filet I was pretty well stuffed. I managed a few bites before I had to close up shop. Meanwhile, my friend devoured her shrimp scampi while I snuck a bite of it. The shrimp was light, garlicky and buttery. She didn’t feel like steak that night, and I was thrilled to see that the seafood options are not merely an afterthought, but are also delicious.

While I assume it’s become evident to all that I have a lot of love for The Knight Cap, I do have one criticism. The desserts are downright bad. Wanting to be sure that this was still the case, the three of us ordered bananas foster, which confirmed my previous observations. We were presented with a platter of vanilla ice cream, sliced bananas and whipped cream. Everything was white, everything was bland, and 90 percent of the dish remained on the plate. If you’ve got a hankering for something sweet after you enjoy the best steak in town, stop by the Soup Spoon Café for their bread pudding if you’re heading to East Lansing or Okemos, or Mediteran for any of their homemade delicacies if you’re heading back into Lansing.

The Knight Cap also offers a surprisingly reasonably priced lunch menu, and if you’ve got a little extra time or want to have a special lunch midweek, work it into your rotation. I know from past experience that the San Francisco Cobb Salad is fresh, colorful and an excellent value for $9.50.

Lansingites, we’ve got a responsibility to keep our homegrown, locally owned, independent businesses thriving. If I need to do my part by enjoying a wonderful steak dinner at a cozy little joint nestled next to a strip club, consider me ready and willing.

The Knight Cap
320 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing.
Dining room hours: 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m.–11 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Bar is open until midnight all six days.
(517) 484-7676 | theknightcap.com.
FB, TO, OM, RES, P, $$$$.

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