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Published: Friday, 10/26/2001

Outback: neither ethnic nor exotic

Apart from strange words that look self-conscious on an American menu, what's distinctive about Australian cuisine? For that matter, what's distinctive about the cooking of the American West, which the Australian outback is said to resemble? Starchy hearthcakes, boiled coffee? Hardly the raw material of fine feeding.

In that respect, much the same is true in whatever measure the Outback Steakhouse in Maumee (and, most likely, its Monroe Street twin) fairly represents the land down under. No fine feeding here; a gourmet meal would instantly give lie to the carefully cultivated image of rough and ready life around the campfire.

This is not to say that, as many Toledoans know, you can't have a reasonably satisfying meal at the Outback; it's just that the Outback menu is neither ethnic nor even exotic in any sense. Though for want of a more exact category we call it a family restaurant, it's clear that the average prices add up to more than many families would probably want to pay except for special occasions. Do note, by the way, that the Outback is a dinner-only restaurant.

Two details explain my justification for calling the Outback a family restaurant. There is a bar, but so far as my observations go it is rarely overcrowded and never boisterous; besides, it is separated by rather high room dividers from the dining areas. In addition, the Outback is totally informal; no need to deck out Junior for the celebration of his fourth birthday supper. There is are also five plates (average $3.50) and a yummy sundae for youngsters under 10.

For their elders, the menu offers pretty standard fare: five steaks, prime rib in three sizes, and a substantial rack of lamb that could well be further butchered in the kitchen. The plate's big enough alongside the garlic potatoes, but it's not easy to get at the meat inside eight tiny ribs with a ferocious-looking but dull knife.

A nine-ounce tenderloin was nice eating despite being broiled a little past medium rare when it reached the table. An alternative to the relatively standard but tasty garlic mashed potatoes were decidedly undercooked fall vegetables - carrots, cauliflower, broccoli.

Fish is not big here: There's shrimp, king crab, and “fish of the day.” Pasta is featured in two entrees, with mixed seafood and with or without, as you please, a grilled breast of chicken.

Chicken is in fact second only to beef in the list of entrees. If you enjoy a succulent breast of chicken lost under a throw of mushrooms and a blanket of monterey jack and cheddar cheese melted together, an impressive assemblage touched up at the end with honey mustard, the Alice Springs chicken is for you.

The menu, itself assembled at some central bureaucracy, is bent on serving you a caesar salad. It's either a biggie, with shrimp, a breast of chicken, or a big breast of chicken, or a smaller one, which appears on both page two and page three. The central bureaucracy is also why you'll never get a sensational creation of a talented chef or - almost assuredly - a bad dinner; it's a bit more than cook-by-number.

When you arrive on a rainy evening, watch carefully where you park: I stepped into what seemed almost a deep well invisible against the black top. There's only a single parking lot entry, on the east side of the restaurant into an ample lot.

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