VINELAND - Generally, outside of a casino, I don't consider a hotel eatery the most desirable dining destination. But Dakota Prime Steak House and Sushi Bar inside the Ramada here has changed my mind.
Although I found it a little peculiar that the greeter's desk is located in the hotel's lobby instead of inside the restaurant, once my guest and I entered and sat down in a cozy, tufted booth next to a window waterfall, the ambience became more inviting.
There are three menus to consider. First is the wine, sake and martini list; second is the steakhouse fare; and the third offers specialties from the sushi bar, from which we chose our appetizers.
Our meal began with warm, fairly run-of-the-mill seeded dinner rolls served with butter. More often than not, we find good, crusty artisan or Italian bread in many places we dine, so these rolls disappointed us a bit. They didn't stand up to the top-notch meats we had for dinner. However, our appetizers from the sushi bar were outstanding, so we practically forgot about the bread.
I was drawn to a dish I hadn't come across before on any local sushi menu. Dragon ball ($7.95) came with two meatball-sized mounds of spicy tuna dipped in crispy tempura flakes and completely enveloped in delicately sliced avocado, then floated in a lightly thickened sweet soy sauce. The buttery avocado cooled the fiery zip of the tuna, and the tempura flakes added just the right amount of crunch to each bite. Together, the tastes and textures were sensational.
My guest prefers to eat cooked seafood rather than raw, so we had a shrimp-tempura roll ($8.95). It was predictably delicious. I especially liked the shredded cucumber that garnished it.
Dinners from the steakhouse menu come with a garden salad made with a lovely assortment of vegetables: romaine and iceberg lettuces, purple cabbage, red bell pepper, cucumber slices, black olives, walnuts, dried cranberries and a plump, ripe cherry tomato. Although there are other choices, the house dressing - a far too syrupy raspberry vinaigrette - overwhelmed an otherwise-enjoyable salad. There has to be a way to make a berry dressing with a hint of sweetness rather than by overloading it with sugar.
Dakota deserves accolades for its steaks and chops.
The main portion of the reasonably priced surf and turf ($29.99) was outstanding. An 8-ounce, simply seasoned filet mignon was perfectly grilled to medium rare. It was tender and mouthwatering, as was the 4.5-ounce, cold-water South African lobster tail that accompanied it. As a matter of fact, this lobster tail was one of the sweetest I've had in a long time. I truly didn't want it to end.
Unfortunately, my baked potato could have been fluffier, and the medley of green and wax beans with baby carrots was overcooked - almost squishy.
My guest and I agreed that the grilled prime cowboy pork chop with the bone ($18.95) was pretty terrific. Cooked slightly pink inside, it was juicy and extremely flavorful. It didn't need anything fancy to spruce it up. It shone on its own.
A baked sweet potato was served with a big dollop of cinnamon butter on the side, which I appreciated, because I like to add my own butter, if any.
Instead of eating the lackluster vegetable medley, we concentrated on classic creamed spinach for two ($6.95) that we ordered in addition, which was very good but needed extra salt to liven it up.
For dessert, the Jim Beam bomb ($6.95), made with a layer of supposedly bourbon-soaked sponge cake topped with creme filling and a chocolate-ganache coating, was a nice ending to our meal, only we hardly tasted any bourbon. We can't blame that on the chef, since our waiter told us the desserts are brought in from a Philadelphia bakery.
Speaking of our waiter, he was pleasant and soft-spoken, but he didn't pay as much attention to details as we would expect from a server in a fine-dining establishment. For instance, we still had our appetizer plates when he delivered our salads, and he brought our dinners to the table while our salad plates remained before us instead of stopping by to remove them first. Plus, at the end of the meal, when he presented the check, he hadn't cleared the breadbasket and butter dish, our bread plates, our dessert plates and cutlery.
By that time, everything should have been taken away. But he was a nice guy, and we liked him, even though it was difficult to overlook the sloppiness.
What I'll remember most about our meal were the main ingredients: the superior sushi, and the succulent pork chop, steak and lobster tail. With some tweaking, the rest may well become icing on the cake.
(Taylor Yarborough is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Yarborough c/o Food Editor James Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.)
Dakota Prime Steak House &
Sushi Bar at the Ramada Vineland
2216 West Landis Ave. and Route 55, Vineland
Steakhouse lunch hours: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sushi-bar lunch hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Steakhouse and sushi-bar dinner hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m.
Liquor license: Yes
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Appetizers, $5.95 to $11.50; entrees, $16.50 to $29.99
Our bill for two: $79.75 plus tip