RATING |

When you are weighing the choice between two entrees, it's never a good sign when the server leans furtively toward your ear to advise sotto voce that (surprise!) the more expensive cut of steak is a better bet.

My first waiter at Parker's Prime, though, managed to elevate the hard-sell to a new level of crass.

The $40 "zabuton" cut of Wagyu beef, he said, was so sublimely marbled from its famously pampered breeding, "I want to marry a Wagyu wife to feed me beer and give me massages."

As for Parker's "least nicest" cut, the $24 bargain flatiron steak?

"In my opinion," he confided, leaning in with a burst of fetid breath, "the flatiron sucks!"

Even in this year of steak-house insanity, with more than its share of tableside bull, this was a rare performance. And it got even more memorable once the food came. My $42 N.Y. strip, sliced open to reassure me that it was medium-rare, appeared to be way overcooked.

"Well, take a taste of it quick!" he demanded, hoping a bite would change my mind, but sensing the imminent delay of a redo.

It's easy to excuse rough service as the symptom of a suburban strip-mall setting, where seasoned fine-dining staff is harder to come by. And I have more sympathy for earnest inexperience, like the second-meal server who struggled red-faced to open our wine (with an even younger trainee looking on) before he realized it wasn't a screw top after all.

But there's nothing small-time about the entree prices here, which range from the mid-$20s into the $40s. And I expected more all around from a restaurant by Win and Sutida Somboonsong. This couple has built an impressive restaurant empire in the Pennsylvania burbs that's suddenly growing at warp speed, from their original mom-and-pop, Mikado Thai Pepper, to handsome Teikoku, Media's sleek Azie, and beyond, including two other new spots in Villanova's former Maia - the sushi-centric Azie on Main upstairs, and a comfort-food sports bar called MIXX soon to open downstairs.

So why not a steak house, too, while the recession rents on vacant fine-dining spaces are cheap? Everyone else seemed to open one in 2009.

An accessible destination spot is not a bad idea, in theory, for this movie theater strip mall in Newtown Square. The Somboonsongs did a light but tasteful renovation of the already snazzy former Roux 3 space, preserving the curvaceous contours of its semiprivate booths, but adding layered stone and leather to the walls, coolly backlit bathroom fixtures, a soothing Miles Davis loop on the soundtrack, and a well-chosen wine list to fill the striking glassed-in cellar.

The restaurant group also has a track record of good ingredients and a culinary team with links to Morimoto that, presumably, could give the old beefeater concept a catchy Asian twist.

What flourishes Parker's Prime delivers, though, are a low-effort repertoire of fusion cliches, from tempura-fried calamari (very chewy) to been-there-done-that sushi rolls and a cheese-filled "spring roll" that's basically an Asian mozzarella stick.

Some of the old standbys happen to be among the kitchen's more edible efforts - a crispy rock shrimp tempura glazed in yellow aioli (if it only had a flicker of spice), a fan of pristine yellowtail sashimi buttoned down with jalapeño rounds in a citrusy soy pool of ponzu. Some of the sushi offerings were perfectly enjoyable, if not inventive, including the sweet king crab leg sashimi cocktail (excellent, even if they were prefrozen, contrary to our waiter's insistence), and the Parker's roll that brought a spicy tuna-avocado maki beneath a blizzard of crunchy panko crumbs.

But for each of those easy hits, there were notable misfires. I have no idea what New England clam chowder was doing on this menu - completely undistinguished in its thick bland cream? The can't-miss Wagyu beef tartare, meanwhile, somehow missed, with a soy marinade that was just too liquidy and strong on ginger, rinsing the diced raw meat almost entirely of its decadent marbled richness.

But when actually cooked under Parker's 1800-degree broiler as a "zabuton" (that's Japanese for "seat cushion," which explains why this chunk of chuck roll is cut into a rectangle), I have to admit it was a stellar piece of beef, caramelized to a charry crisp around the squared edges, and positively buttery inside.

Then again, the quality of primary ingredients here is not the issue (except for the flatiron, which, I'll have to agree with my server, was the "least nice" bite of beef to be had). I loved the richness of the dry-aged porterhouse - it just seemed skimpier than the advertised 20 ounces, and thus overpriced at $49. The filet mignon was a perfectly well-behaved filet - superbly tender and inoffensively mild of flavor, the ideal companion to Parker's Prime's addictive garlic-fried rice (or shimeji mushroom-studded spinach).

But I can't imagine what inspired the kitchen to dredge a perfectly good Delmonico rib-eye in pre-grated Parmesan, an unfortunately dry, juice-soaking final flourish that looked like a burnt crust of cheap shaker cheese.

A thick, steaklike slice of Chilean sea bass, beautifully browned under the broiler, would have made a fine meat alternative had it not been oversalted and accompanied by a butter sauce that was watery thin.

The N.Y. strip served at Parker's, meanwhile, really is deserving of its prime-grade designation (in fact, it's the restaurant's only prime steak). But it took the kitchen three times to cook it right, which isn't ideal at $42 a pop. After the first episode in overcooking, the replacement was predictably ice-cold and raw.

By the third act, someone got lucky and actually nailed a spot-on medium-rare. Once my fork delivered a slice of the rosey-hued goods, a warm sensation of carnivorous joy spread into a smile across my face, and our embattled waiter issued an apologetic sigh of relief. (Which, by the way, reeked of freshly inhaled cigarette.)

"Coffee's on me, guys," he said, magnanimously.

The big spender could have at least offered dessert for our troubles, too. But then, other than the surprising ice creams and sorbets (mocha and blood orange? Yum.), they wouldn't have done much to make amends. Instead, a depressingly dry molten chocolate cake and a fruity creme brulee (so laden with berries, the crust literally sank into the soupy custard) only emphasized what I already knew.

In this frenzied year of new steak houses, the best, unfortunately, has not been saved for last.

Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the Year in Bells.
Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.