Outback Steakhouse, Atlanta GA

Marie and I were invited to join some other local media to sample Outback Steakhouse’s new menu items, including a line of steaks and chops grilled over wood that complement their successful “Seasoned and Seared” blend. It was nice to visit with our friends from Atlanta Foodies and meet some other area bloggers, including Exclusive Eats, Insatiable and Talking With Tami, who posts more frequently than most adults breathe. Poor Marie, sadly, had to contend with worse than usual traffic coming from Dunwoody, and missed the first couple of courses. Some good steak and desserts cheered her up a bit.

Our regular readers know that we rarely patron national chains of any type, preferring to learn the stories of small restaurants. I was reminded, however, that beyond the quality of the food, which, at Outback, is reasonably solid, there are still stories to tell. I was really fascinated to learn that the whole roll-out process of the “Wood-Fire Grilled” menu – just imagine a little TM there, as we are dealing with the corporate world in today’s entry – has taken two years of testing, training and installing the new grills in close to a thousand stores across the continent. At the same time, Outback has embarked on a massive redesign of all of their stores, apparently the first face lift that many of these places have seen in twenty years. In a hobby where locals scrutinize, for example, the four months between the start-up and the crash landing of LeRoy’s Fried Chicken, being taken through the two years it takes to roll out a new product line is actually quite intriguing.

We met with Dave Ellis, who came up from Tampa for the event and who has been with the company since its beginnings. He told us a little potted history of the chain and shared a few fun anecdotes. I enjoyed hearing about the development of the popular Bloomin’ Onion appetizer, which required the help of a professor at Texas A&M to get a specific, spherical one-pound Spanish onion to grow under set conditions which could be duplicated at farms throughout the western states. Even with big, multi-national chains, there are funny stories to be told.

So they fed us. They fed us extremely well. They gave us small samples of both the classic “Seasoned & Seared” and the new “Wood-Fire Grilled” sirloins so that we could compare the taste. The original is made with a blend of seventeen spices, while the new has only six, and is cooked over oak wood. They were each quite good, although I did prefer the original, with its fuller flavor. The newer sirloin is just fine, but there’s a fire in the classic’s belly that the oak wood version, with its lighter spice, doesn’t match.

That said, the light spice and wood grilling does go extremely well on some of the other menu items. One of the highlights was the pork chop, which was unbelievably tasty. It’s served with a little cup of midly spicy orange marmalade and I could certainly see myself having that again down the road. We also sampled their California chicken salad, baby back ribs, an incredibly curious mahi-mahi dish topped with artichoke heats, sun-dried tomatoes and a lemon sauce, along with prime rib and the menu’s highest point, a really good ribeye that uses a slightly different spice blend that mixes a little better with this cut.

I made an exception in our rule against professional publicity photographs, in part because my own photo of the mahi-mahi was horrible, and in part because this pic does a great job conveying just how downright peculiar this dish is. Works, though.

They finished us off with a pile of desserts, including a very rich and moist carrot cake, a cheesecake with raspberry sauce, and a really unusual chocolate waffle, served with a thick, house-made chocolate sauce and a big scoop of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. I’m sure our long-term readers will appreciate that, now that I have identified the problem, I’ve broken my bad habit of using the word “decadent” to describe whatever fool dessert gets put in front of me, although the waffle came pretty close to warranting it. Outback’s setup allows them to change out their dessert waffle specialties according to the season. Should I return when strawberry waffles are on the menu, I will have to try those.

Having said that, of course, Marie and I rarely ever visit national chains. Outback did a splendid job putting a human face on a corporate world, and showing off some very good food. I appreciated the chance to get to know them better. I’m not about to start calling the Hall of Fame Bowl anything other than the Hall of Fame Bowl no matter who sponsors it, but if you’re on the road and desiring a good ribeye, Outback, in a very pleasant surprise, has shown itself to be a good option.

Outback invited us to enjoy an additional meal on them, so a few days later, we stopped by the store nearest us, on Barrett Parkway, in the company of our daughter to try them out. I ordered that celebrated Bloomin’ Onion appetizer without thinking to ask whether either of the ladies wanted to share it. Never do this; that is far too much onion for one person to attempt on their own. Other than being forced, disagreeably, to waste about half of a perfectly good onion, we enjoyed ourselves. Marie and I split their largest ribeye, with the “Wood-Fire Grilled” seasoning and prep, with a small order of shrimp, and it was quite delicious, while the girlchild just had some soup and sides. Marie expressed a desire to come back once she is eating dairy again, so that she can enjoy one of those waffle desserts with ice cream. Reckon we’ll do that. Probably not on a weekend night, though; this place gets ridiculously busy!