Review: American Prime in McLean

Does Tysons Corner need another steakhouse?

Photo by Rey Lopez

American Prime is a steakhouse. It’s hidden in an office park off the main arteries pulsing with traffic around Tysons Corner.

“It’s the hardest place to find the first time you get there,” is even how its owner, Joon Yang, describes the location. Yang then knocks off all the routes to his restaurant, his second after Epic Smokehouse, which took up residence on a once empty-yet-construction-filled strip in Pentagon City.

American Prime is a steakhouse much like any other, mostly in a way that makes it unremarkable. It’s in a crowded field with Fleming’s, Eddie V’s, The Palm, McCormick & Schmick’s, Chima, The Capital Grille, Fago de Chao and Ruth’s Chris also in the immediate vicinity. American Prime is not a power destination. It’s not a foodie destination. It seems to exist to serve the moneyed of McLean, at least that’s the way it sounded from the next table over discussing Robert Parker wine ratings.

After talking with Yang, it seems that hunch is right. American Prime is also the home of the private club, IX (pronounced “nine”). Members need key fobs (this is an office park after all) and there’s an initiation fee; plus, members can either order off the main restaurant menu or ask for anything. One regular has a standing order of lumpia, a Filipino-style egg roll. Another regular requires a specific type of sauce for his hot wings. And for the money-is-no-object patrons: high-roller spirits like Hennessy Richard (Virginia ABC lists it for $4,700 a bottle), is only stocked in this back bar, with a half-ounce costing about $250.

But none of this really matters to you or me; we’re relegated to the main dining room, a rather bare and unadorned space with sharp-edged wooden booths and white tablecloths. Walking through the front entrance, hanging meats greet guests from behind a glass wall. But skip the charcuterie, the overly salty duck prosciutto is cut thick, prompting a chewy—not silky—experience.

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Beef carpacccio decorated in Parmesan cheese and truffle oil. // Photo by Rey Lopez

The generous plate of beef carpaccio fares better, though brought out a touch too cold, the truffle oil overpowers the subtleties of raw meat.

Prime rib—a cut so unfashionable it’s bound for a comeback—is the star of the menu. In Brett Martin’s December 2017 GQ essay on the Four Season’s new Grill Room, where he unpacks power dining in New York City, the steak is an edible thesis: “Prime rib is its emblematic cut: at once stolid and ceremonial, decadent and dad-approved. The Oldsmobile of meats.”

At American Prime the prime rib is a carryover recipe from Epic Smokehouse, where the meat is wet-aged, encased in horseradish, smoked for almost three hours, held with moisture-controlled heating elements and dipped in an au jus before serving.

This is not like eating wet paper towels, as some prime rib haters describe the experience. It is, instead, a purer form of eating beef. Meat not hidden under an almost-requisite glorious char, meat not disguised under a cloak of sauce. It’s a cut laid bare, glistening, shimmering, occupying the whole plate, not shy in its width, in its height, subsuming the gaze and leers like a lion lounging in the sun. It’s butter-soft, smoky and comes to life with a little dab of freshly grated horseradish. Why did this cut ever lose favor?

The 21-day, dry-aged New York strip isn’t as successful. The outside is burnt, the inside is dry: a joyless steak. Many other items can get a pass for being joyless, like rice cakes and oatmeal. But a steak—a sliver of carnality, of what should be pure pleasure—needs to satisfy our hunger, both physically and emotionally. Steak is a last-meal wish, steak is a celebratory event, steak costs a lot of money and it needs to make us happy. This steak could not fill those buckets.

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Prime rib is the star with egg-topped kimchi fried rice and blue cheese au gratin. // Photo by Rey Lopez

The steak menu at American Prime is short: strip, cowboy ribeye, filet mignon and pork chops. The filet fares better, soft and rosy-centered, enhanced with bone marrow butter, thick like frosting. Pork chops come crusted with a fun blue cheese gremolata, bringing a salty pungency to the pig. The flavors are right, but the chop was a little dry.

Accompanying the meal should be the classics. Cream spinach tastes exactly how this bechamel-based phenom should taste: like cream, not greens. Mashed potatoes arrive smooth and buttery, with a well filled with roasted marrow butter. The addition of this meaty topper adds a savory, salty note to what can be a one-note dish.

Other sides—steaks come plated with what the server called garnishes of vegetables, not proper portions—are mostly standard, such as braised Brussels sprouts (wish they were crisp, not soggy) and crab mac and cheese (more fishy than cheesy). The head-turner is the kimchi fried rice, an unusual addition.

“That’s just my thing,” says Yang, who buys tubs of the fermented cabbage from his cousin, who owns a counter operation inside of a Lotte Plaza Market in Maryland. The kimchi here is tamer: less spicy and spun within rice topped with a fried egg.

Poke is another dish with influences beyond the steakhouse canon. The dish nods at trends while filling the role tuna tartare normally plays. Here tuna is barely dressed in a traditional mix of soy sauce and sesame oil, gathered with a nest of seaweed, fiery sliced cucumbers and sticky rice in a hard wonton shell, and is a passable mainland knockoff of the Hawaiian birthright.

The Guinness cheesecake is rich, but still easy to down in its uncomplicated taste. A flourless chocolate cake, sliced like a pie, is also rich, like pot de creme in solid form. Served on a white plate decorated in raspberry squiggles, this antiquated style of plating only reinforces the problems at American Prime.

Yang and his partner, Wayne Halleran, are both steakhouse veterans. This shows in the polished servers, many of whom are older and seem to have made a career out of working tables, sliding in honeyed one-liners with just a touch of zing. Yang worked at Morton’s, The Palm and The Capital Grille, where he met American Prime’s executive chef Jeff Surma, all corporate operations with menus etched into stone.

American Prime, opened little more than half a year, could have carved a new path in modern steakhouse dining. Instead, it relies on an expertly made prime rib, but also, mishandled tropes.

Notes:

American Prime
1420 Spring Hill Road, McLean

Open for weekday lunch and dinner daily
Appetizers: $10-$16
Entrees: $18-$42

(February 2018)

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