Holding a nearly mythical place in one town's dining scene can be a double-edged sword. While it ensures a steady flow of business, it also raises expectations.
The thought swelled in my head as I ascended for the first time into the hillside dining room at the revered Pepper Tree.
Walking in the door is, in itself, a memorable experience, as waves of olfactory goodness upstage even the view from the picture windows. Surely, this is one facet of The Pepper Tree's trademark tableside preparations that escapes general notice. The constant addition of butter to heat, followed by meat and fruit to hot butter, and liquor to hot meat, fruit and butter produces one of the most delectably perfumed eating spaces imaginable.
As the nose relaxes, dark beige walls, crisp white table linens, shiny silver and an almost all-male, tuxedoed wait staff come into clearer view. The menu is filled with old-school classics, including chateaubriand, Dover sole, trout amandine, and veal Oscar, but it's what gets cooked outside the kitchen that draws the most attention.
Taking a full-course tour of the house specialties proves thoroughly rewarding, so start with the tangy and garlicky Caesar salad, a good rendition tossed tableside with a flourish.
When the prep table for the signature pepper steak arrives, loaded down with a hefty hunk of raw tenderloin, peppercorns, a veritable mountain of butter, and the combustibles, the real show begins.
Meat sizzles in butter for several minutes before the server turns on the fireworks, finishing the dish with black pepper and mango chutney, a formidable and surprisingly complementary duo. Despite the girth of the evenly mid-rare filet, a butter knife provides all the muscle necessary to slice it.
With bananas Foster for dessert, tables again bask in the light of flaming liquor before glorying in the gooey caramel and banana compote served over vanilla ice cream.
Surprisingly, the kitchen could take a cue or two from the waiters working the tables. Although the crab-stuffed squid over pasta is surprisingly light and tender, the crab cakes are merely pedestrian.
Thick cuts of both sea bass and lamb chops arrive perfectly prepared and simply plated, delightfully expressing their natural flavors. Sadly, however, the veal piccata we ordered was both overcooked and oversalted.
There's also a nicely equipped bar and a lengthy wine list, but neither was put to good use during our visit. Gin martinis were shaken and cloudy, and our wine steward possessed a perplexing mixture of incompetence and arrogance, deterring us from one wine "too complicated" for our amateurish palates and steering us to another lacking smell, flavor or any resemblance to his description.
Missteps aside, The Pepper Tree makes a favorable impression. The food service is professional, and the kitchen nicely coordinates the tableside-prepared dishes. The Pepper Tree has a strong reputation to uphold, and it is keeping the fire burning.
The Pepper Tree
888 W. Moreno Ave., 471-4888