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On other steaks, you can get a sauce of your choice, within limits. Alas and lackaday! The lavish but labor-intensive, skill-challenging béarnaise sauce (an elaborate wine-based twist on hollandaise) is still listed on the website but has gone off menu. I mind, I really mind, because one of my lifelong reasons for going to restaurants has been to enjoy dishes I can’t just toss off at home. To me, a steakhouse without a béarnaise is like a mousetrap without cheese. As a child of Julia, I made many a terrifying béarnaise in my younger years (using the dregs of the serious French Bordeaux we’d be drinking with dinner rather than a classic white wine — looked ugly pinky-yellow but tasted amazing), but now I’m old, lazy, and single again, so let some professional beat madly to incorporate the butter! As a youngster I adored any steak I could get (an always-rare, treasured treat) and sauce was unknown, but I’ve since grown bored with most beef and look to sauces to lend the meat interest.

The beef at Wellington is top Choice (or equivalent) rather than the USDA Prime of the much more expensive top steakhouses. You can find top Choice at supermarkets in upmarket areas (e.g., the Coronado Albertsons, Jonathan’s in La Jolla), but it’s extremely difficult to find Prime grade at retail, since restaurants monopolize it. Here, all the steaks have been wet-aged at length, but none (as far as I know) are dry-aged. (Wet-aging, e.g., hanging prime cuts for several weeks sheathed in heavy plastic Cryovac wrap, only tenderizes the meat. Dry-aging — hanging mainly the rib-loin prime cut unsheathed in a climate-controlled situation — intensifies its flavors as well and adds to the price because the meat shrinks so much in the process.)

We chose a Harris Ranch rib-eye, the most flavorful steak cut, very rare, with chimichurri, Argentina’s parsley-based vinaigrette salsa — and a very good one it is, brightly wide awake. It’s an easy sauce to make, but this was a cut above most versions I’ve made at home.

The Kobe top sirloin is the same not-quite-Kobe we had as a tartare, and as a steak it revealed its true nature. It’s a big puck of meat, closer to its certified Angus beef fathers than its Wagyu side. It’s hearty and chewy, the marbling decent but not extraordinary, as in genuine Wagyu. (I’m rather sad about this — America keeps buying up other countries’ culinary folk-heritages and turning them into regular commodities.) The sauce we chose with the aid of Javier was au poivre, a cream sauce finished off at the end with cracked black pepper. But sauce or no, I kept thinking that this flavorful beef would be even better grilled on a campfire over mesquite or any other fallen dry wood scavenged from the forested edges of the campground. (Dream on.) Like buffalo, it seems to crave wood smoke.

You have your choice of two sides with every steak entrée. And they are all good. At Red Door I didn’t love the mac ’n’ cheese, but I’ve eaten lots more renditions since then at other restaurants — uh-oh, this is the new tiramisu. Now I love it for a disgusting reason: it’s made with a combo of Velveeta and Gruyère. I’m ashamed, but this is my own mom’s mac ’n’ cheese (though she didn’t include Gruyère, just Velveeta), and I’ve come around to its “food for the inner child” ethos. Even better did I like the sweet creamed corn, which tastes as it sounds. Sweet-potato fries are a pleasing, healthy starch choice, and mini baked Yukon potatoes are, too. They’re cute, crispy, small enough to enjoy without a carb-guilt overload. We didn’t try the Yukon gold mash.

All meated out, we could barely contemplate dessert. The four of us shared a lemon-curd extravaganza and couldn’t finish it. But it was really good. Even better: flawless espressos, fresh-made with crema still intact at delivery.

Although Wellington can’t afford Prime grade meat at the neighborhood prices it charges, what you go here for is not so much the meat but “the sizzle on the steak.” That sizzle consists mainly of the jazzy, retro ambiance, postwar film noir meets Prohibition speakeasy — plus good service, comfortable seating for all tastes, and above all, music that’s a treat for all ears. That’s a lot of sizzle. ■

The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge

★★★ (Fair to Good)

729 West Washington Street, Mission Hills, 619-295-6001; TheWellingtonSD.com

HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 5:30–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday till 11:00 p.m. Happy hour at bar daily 5:00–6:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $6.50–$13.50; entrées, $16.50–$32.50 (including two sides and a sauce); desserts, $6.50. Sundays $35, three-course Beef Wellington dinner special.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: USDA top Choice steaks cooked to order, a few seafood and poultry choices. Wine list somewhat steep (mainly over $50), but seek and ye shall find affordable bottles and glasses. Full bar emphasizing martini variations.
PICK HITS: Kobe beefsteak tartare; Creole shrimp; bacon-wrapped scallops; rib-eye steak with chimichurri sauce; creamed corn; mac ’n’ cheese; sweet-potato fries; lime-curd dessert.
NEED TO KNOW: Small room, so always reserve. Quiet, sophisticated atmosphere. Relatively easy street parking.

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Naomi Wise July 9, 2010 @ 4:14 p.m.

Wow, Typo Patrol alert! This is serious! Three stars is not merely "fair to good," it is "very good." (This error appeared in the print edition as well.) My apologies to Wellington for spoiling the possible glee at a favorable review. The print edition also made a hash of the paragraph where I described Javier's professionalism, by somehow losing a long half a sentence.


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