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DINING OUT

Not by steak alone at this social spot

If you come from cattle country, you know that the cow is a social animal. And as you watch them standing in congenial groups in one end of a pasture, they look like guests at a cocktail party. You can almost imagine them holding drinks in their hooves and chatting about lawn care. It's probably no surprise that the same image comes to mind when I walk into Grill 23. On a Wednesday night, the bar scene spills out into the foyer, and in the few minutes we stand waiting for the last member of our party to arrive, more and more people surge in. The din is thunderous.

By my estimation, Grill 23 & Bar is the most popular restaurant in Boston: It's the place people ask about; it's the place for the special night out; it's the one cab drivers invariably suggest. Although there are several other highly rated steakhouses in Boston -- Morton's, Abe & Louie's, Capital Grille, Oak Room -- Grill 23, now more than 20 years old, is king. Last year, more than 135,000 diners ate in the 365-seat restaurant.

Competition, however, is looming on the horizon. In the fall, a Smith & Wollensky will open in the Castle on Arlington Street. Not only will it be in close proximity, but the national reputation of this behemoth, which already has restaurants in 10 cities nationwide, may challenge the hometown favorite. (Morton's is part of a national chain, too, but it keeps a low profile here in Boston.) Grill 23 is owned by American Food Management, with Kenneth Himmel and Brian Sommers as principals. Timothy Lynch, the longtime manager and executive, is no longer involved in day-to-day operations, according to Lynch and a company spokeswoman.

A long sociological treatise could be done on why, here in the land of the cod, Bostonians are so crazy about steak. But they are, and in the past couple of years steakhouses have not only proliferated, but steak holds pride of place on nearly every menu. It seems worthwhile to look at the Grill again to see if the steak's the reason for its popularity, or if the answer is somewhat more complicated.

On a weekend night, we're ushered past the pit-like dining room in front of the open kitchen to an area in the back. The restaurant's dark wood, Oriental carpets, and heavy hanging lamps bespeak a men's club look, writ large. All the details -- from a 900-bottle wine list to thick white linens and heavy silverware -- drive home that impression.

Every table is filled, and the patrons seem to be talking and laughing at the top of their voices. We pretty much have to shout, or read lips, to converse at all. However, it's definitely a party. On my last visit, the hostess took us upstairs to a table where it was a little quieter, but felt out of the action. It was also definitely less frequented by the wait staff. Downstairs the service isn't exactly warm and fuzzy, but it is cheerfully efficient and attentive.

The menu has evolved over the years beyond steaks and chops, with chef Jay Murray offering imaginative seafood and meat dishes. Still the best of the appetizers is a classic: steak tartare, blood red, finely minced, and pure carnivore indulgence. Wellfleet littleneck chowder with bacon and lobster-infused oil is pleasing in flavor and full of clams but delivered close to lukewarm in temperature.

The foie gras and truffle demitasse is a bit of a shock, since it looks exactly like cappuccino, complete with a frothy topping of unsweetened whipped cream, and tastes sinfully rich so that two or so tiny teaspoonfuls are just right. But richness isn't just reserved for the luxury dishes; each leaf of Romaine in a Caesar salad drips with an eggy dressing. Not a fallback for dieters, I fear.

A softshell crab dish exemplifies Murray's push into more seasonal seafood. These are mammoth softshells stacked three high over guacamole. A faintly spicy sauce of tomato and chilis naps around the softshells, and there's plenty of the herbal notes of cilantro. The crabs are crunchy outside but moist inside, and the mellow avocado provides a pleasant foil, both in taste and texture.

On an earlier visit, sashimi-quality tuna arrives unappealingly gray around the edges and too done in the middle. A Scotch bonnet chili and orange glaze perk the fish up a little but not enough to rescue it, and the Chinese broccoli underneath is curiously tasteless. Seafood paella, a copper pan overflowing with clams, mussels, prawns, and plenty of chunks of fish, fares better, the rice crisped at the edges and the seafood retaining its flavors and moisture.

However, the meat still carries away the prizes. I must admit that my guests clamored for steak, so I ended up tasting beef around the menu. Cognac and mustard spark the sauce of steak Diane but don't mask the sirloin's quality. Slow-roasting proves a good method for tenderloin, which can be too dry if grilled. The drift of mashed potatoes underneath is as finely textured as baby food but tastes purely of potato.

This is not the place for mom's meatloaf, though. Aged sirloin chopped with sausage into meatloaf, then topped with cheese, sounds intriguing but turns out dry rather than charmingly nostalgic. Even a side plate of tater tots doesn't make up for the meatloaf -- or its $24 cost.

A porterhouse one evening is mammoth, but it pales in comparison to the Kobe ribeye cap -- in fact, everything pales next to the Kobe. I've wondered at times at the fuss made about this Japanese beef, but Grill 23's version makes me a believer, with its expensive explosion of taste in each bite.

Splurging on the meat doesn't mean desserts are any less extravagant. Pastry chef Molly Hanson creates a delicious passionfruit pudding cake with just the right amount of tartness to match the sweet vanilla creme anglaise. A pretty Meyer lemon meringue pie has the same balance, and a dense chocolate layered cake fulfills any chocolate fantasies.

As for my initial question as to the source of Grill 23's popularity, I have my answer: It's not just the reputation of the steaks. It's a combination of elements, beef key among them, that include the fact that people gravitate to places where others love to go -- the cattle cocktail party theory. The place is too loud, and you can feel like one of the herd at times. But it feels like a party -- and the Kobe wins the door prize.

Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.

The Federalist Bar Solid starSolid star 1/2 15 Beacon St., Boston. 617-670-2515. Jer.Ne Bar Solid starSolid star 12 Avery St., Boston. 617-574-7175. These hotel restaurant bars offer full menus. The Federalist's small plates are every bit as ambitious as the main menu; Jer.Ne's more casual fare features a great burger. (5/27/04) Salts Solid starSolid starSolid star 798 Main St., Cambridge. 617-876-8444. New owners bring new luster to this intimate spot near Central Square. Chef/co-owner Gabreil Bremer's style is sophisticated and his flavors true. And the whole duck is fantastic. (5/20/04) Scollay Square Solid star 1/2 21 Beacon St., Boston. 617-742-4988. This place has the feeling of old Boston (though the real Scollay Square was several blocks to the east). The best of the fare are classic steaks and chops in this friendly spot with the added advantage of outdoor seating on Beacon Hill. (5/13/04)Spire Solid starSolid starSolid star Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont St., Boston. 617-772-0202. A young chef, Gabriel Frasca, with his first kitchen is wildly creative. Frasca's style starts with French technique and then takes off with contemporary American energy. (4/29/04) Terramia Solid starSolid star 1/2 98 Salem St., North End, Boston. 617-523-3112. A longtime favorite for inventive food in the North End brings in a new chef, Chris Bussell. He manages to embellish the new-wave Italian cuisine, keeping Terramia fresh and exciting. (4/22/04)

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