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WINCHESTER ROOM

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I have a friend who considers himself a connoisseur of steak -- all steak. I have seen him fight through a $3.95 steak-cum-gristle patty at a truck stop, and watched with a mixture of horror and grudging admiration as he ordered and polished off a 32-ounce, $50 steak at a fancy white-tablecloth restaurant. He can claim victory over char-grilled beef slabs in a half-dozen chain steak houses named for various facets of Texas. But his deepest affections are reserved for the economical mom-and-pop steak houses where size trumps sauce and a dozen hearty regulars beats any wall display of dented southwestern state license plates.

So, off we went to the Winchester Room, a place that had long beckoned him from the highway. The building isn't much to look at from Route 30, but its road sign features that magical iconography that lures all steak-hunters: The horns of a long-horned steer are a veritable shorthand for "big steak, served old-school." Additionally, the snap-on letters on the light board simply read "THICK STEAKS."

To its credit, the Winchester Room didn't appear to be going for the cowboy look that has become a steak-house cliché, but seemed to have settled for a highwayman's inn feel: Mounted on the wall were brass plates, muskets, long-arm rifles, and a facsimile of a mid-18th-century map of southwestern Pennsylvania. An electric fire flickered.

As expected, the menu was compact -- steaks, a few appetizers, and a handful of grilled fish (swordfish, tuna, flounder) for those who don't do big beef. One's attention is naturally drawn to the menu items set off by the illustration of a rope: New York strip, filet mignon, black Angus strip and Angus top sirloin, available in regular or thick cuts. The steaks come with a salad, Texas toast and choice of steak fries, pasta or baked potato. You can also get a steak "lite meal" here that is served with just the French fries and toast.

The appetizer seafood here is steamed -- not fried as one often finds it. There's also clam chowder and French onion soup. The clam chowder -- with bits of diced potatoes -- was served piping hot, and the salad is served deeply chilled. The salad was mostly iceberg lettuce with shredded carrots, purple cabbage, red onions, spinach and tomato added for color.

Our steaks arrived and they were indeed substantially sized. I'd ordered the regular cut of the Angus strip, the Angus being a breed raised for quality beef and costing a wee bit more. My companion had typically opted for quantity and had the thick cut of the New York strip: It was nearing three inches high.

The steaks had been simply grilled with just a hint of seasoning. I cut into mine and it just oozed juice. It was as the menu had promised: cooked to perfection -- smoky and a little crusty on the outside, warm, red and moist on the inside. The woman at the next table said it all: "I don't know why they put [bottles of steak sauce] out. The meat is so juicy it doesn't need anything."

The dessert menu offered cheesecake with apricot brandy sauce, pecan balls, a chocolate mousse cake and "brumbleberry" pie. I inquired after the last and was told, "That's a pie with apples and red raspberries." OK, sounds good. Yes, and make it a la mode.

The combination was good, but I was scooping up the warm pie, which was dripping with golden vanilla ice cream, and wondering how an apple-based pie could be so tart -- these must be some powerfully sour raspberries! Such is the power of suggestion. Halfway through the slice, the light dawned and I realized the large fleshy fruit segments were rhubarb, not apples. Of course, "rhubarb + raspberry = brumbleberry" phonetically; "apple" had been merely a slip of the server's tongue.

Mr. Steak wasn't much help in the pie-eating. He had eaten every bit of his giant strip steak and declared the outing a "steak success." I only managed to eat about half of my steak, but looked forward to a quality steak sandwich the next day. * * 1/2

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