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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.

KC Prime Restaurant Steakhouse
4160 Quakerbridge Road
Lawrenceville, Mercer County, New Jersey
(609) 275-5418

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
11/08/2004

Remember when red meat was on the run... carnivores appeared to be an endangered species... and steakhouses scrambled to add more competently prepared fish and fowl to their menus in order to accommodate the sudden and inexplicable rush of health-conscious Americans...? Well, so much for not-so-ancient history. Beef, for a variety of rational and irrational whys and wherefores is back... and with a vengeance.

But steakhouses can be problematic. Do you pay through the nose for hoity-toity ambiance, snooty service, designer dry-aging, and shell out additional amounts of long green for starches and veggies...? Or do you chow down at the lower echelons, save some major bucks, but suffer the not insignificant indignities of inferior quality and an up close and personal encounter with hoi polloi and their raucous and rambunctious progeny?

Until fairly recently, chain chophouses materialized in two distinct incarnations: outrageously expensive or cheesy bargain basement. Now making the culinary scene, however, are a number of independently owned, moderately priced beef emporiums that provide a welcome alternative to the monetary excesses of a Morton's or Ruth's Chris and the egregious cheap eats feeding frenzies on view at Lone Star, Outback, or establishments of similar ilk...

And KC Prime Restaurant Steakhouse, located in the very shadow of the Quakerbridge Mall, fills the aforementioned niche quite nicely. Indeed, judging by the enthusiastic crowds, there is little doubt that proprietors Andy Christou and Phillip Kurnellas have a palpable hit on their hands.

The restaurant's interior is arranged in a semicircle around an attractive bar area and open grill/carving station. The ambiance is casually upscale with tasteful Asian touches, voguish high-back booths, and contemporary lighting fixtures... And service is just as sharp as the surroundings. An attractive young woman was our server on two separate occasions and, large party or small, proved herself to be the absolute epitome of personable professionalism... ditto the hostesses. Children and extended family gatherings are very much in evidence -- especially on weekends -- and great care is taken to seat couples in sections that are separated from the boisterous bedlam of larger parties and/or obstreperous offspring... a courtesy, needless to say, that is greatly appreciated.

But on to the vittles... which are remarkably good, exceedingly plenteous, and more than reasonably priced. Indeed, there is no question that KC Prime gives you an especially good bang for your hard-earned buck. Most upscale steakhouses, for instance, pick your pocket for each and every item that emerges from the bowels of the kitchen. Here, however, not only is the entrée accompanied by a complimentary salad -- freshly tossed mixed greens embellished with tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, red onion, croutons, and an invigorating sun-dried tomato vinaigrette -- but a starch of your choosing as well. And a variety of delicious breads, presented with rosettes of plain, pimento, and basil butter, adds another interesting dimension to the already attractive culinary scenario.

But don't let this dissuade you from sampling the appetizers, as they are particularly well executed. The colossal crabmeat cocktail ($12.00), for example, arrives in a martini glass and features sweet morsels of crab swimming in a sea of vegetable gazpacho adorned with plantain crisps. Delicate and delicious slices of seared sesame-crusted ahi tuna ($12.00) are served sushi-style with a soy-ginger sauce and wasabi. This dish is also available as a main course on a bed of wasabi mashed potatoes ($22.00).

Hot appetizers include a highly recommendable skewer of crunchy herb-crusted shrimp embellished with a tangy rémoulade ($12.00/$20.00 as an entrée served with lemon white wine sauce over penne pasta) and a lightly breaded salmon/crab cake partnered with a spicy dijonaise sauce ($9.00/$19.00 as an entrée). For landlubbers, there is always the grilled portobello with herb goat cheese and balsamic glaze ($8.00) or a tasty spinach dip spiked with artichokes ($8.00).

Soup selections ($4.00) change daily and are always worthy of a look-see. Recently encountered, for instance, was a rather unusual chicken potpie soup. Awash with tender chunks of chicken, potato, and vegetables (sans crust), its incredibly creamy countenance is a silky, self-indulgent dream on the palate... and also something of a caloric and cholesterol-laden nightmare. Delicious but deadly. Consider yourself forewarned.

When it comes to entrée possibilities, my advice is to stick with the various incarnations of beef, as these are clearly what the kitchen does best. Not dry aged but very good (and less expensive) nonetheless. And topping my list is the 14-ounce center-cut New York strip steak ($23.00). It arrives a juicy medium rare, bursting with flavor, and sporting a right-on-the-money slightly chewy texture. Equally appealing is the sensuous and succulent prime rib. Served up au jus with a sun-dried tomato horseradish, it is available as a 12-ounce portion ($20.00) or 30-ounce bone-in ($31.00). Trust me, unless you have the abdominal capacity of a starving yak, or plan to have enough left over for lunch and dinner the following day, the 12-ouncer should be more than sufficient.

The filet mignon (8-ounce $22.00/12-ounce $30.00) is also quite good... ditto the gargantuan porterhouse ($33.00). I also recommend the tender teriyaki beef skewers with stir fried vegetables ($20.00)... although the accompanying gooey jasmine rice cake isn't particularly appealing.

The grilled herb-crusted salmon ($19.00) proved to be the only real dud encountered in several excursions. The extravagantly large filet was cooked through, exactly as ordered, but tasted inordinately fishy. If you insist upon traveling the seafood route, you'd be infinitely better off, in my opinion, casting your lot with the aforementioned ahi tuna or herb-crusted shrimp.

As noted above, in addition to a very good house salad, entrées also come with a designated starch... but you may freely substitute without monetary penalty. The baked potato ($3.00) is, well, a baked potato -- and simply enormous. The wasabi mashed ($3.00) are very good and equally generous (although, on one occasion, the wasabi was conspicuous by its absence), as is the bourbon-imbued sweet potato mash ($3.00). The KC steak fries ($3.00) are more like crisps than fries but still quite addictive.

When it comes to vegetables, the creamed spinach ($3.00) is rich, rich, rich... and the broccoli au gratin ($3.00) is woefully undercooked with a smattering of (barely) melted cheese on top. Go instead for the caramelized onions and mushrooms ($3.00) or haricots verts ($4.00).

A compendious wine list -- with a goodly number of selections by the glass -- is available to complement your meal. Among the white wine possibilities there is, but of course, the omnipresent Kendall Jackson Chardonnay ($7.00 glass/$27.00 bottle) or a very nice Cambria from the Santa Maria Valley ($7.00/$27.00). Much preferred, however, is the crisp and lean Castello Banfi "San Angelo" Pinot Grigio ($7.00/$26.00). And in the red wine department, both the Charles Krug Cabernet ($9.00/$34.00) and Markham Merlot ($9.00/$34.00) are certain to add immeasurably to meaty pursuits.

Should you possess an incurably sweet tooth, just be advised that the homemade desserts ($6.00) are created for two persons... but could probably feed four. And the star of the show is undoubtedly the sweet and creamy KC cheesecake wrapped in a flour tortilla. It is then deep fried, cut on the diagonal, sprinkled with powdered sugar and finished with strawberry coulis. A true gastronomic depravity. Equally sinful are the chocolate velvet -- layers of dark chocolate mousse, chocolate sponge, and vanilla Bavarian cream -- and the brownie sundae.

Me? I think I'll skip the sweets and settle back with a potent espresso ($2.50) and a single malt scotch. A Macallan 12-year-old ($9.00) or Johnnie Walker Blue ($25.00) would go down nice and easy about now... Cheers!!!

Cuisine: Steak plus
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.; Sunday dinner, 2:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is permitted in the bar area only.
Reservations: Highly recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Web Site: kcprimesteakhouse.com

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