A Snazzy Eastern Addition: XO Prime Steaks Plants a Flag in Pepper Pike 

Just as Red, the Steakhouse was planting its flag downtown after a decade of brisk business in the burbs, XO Prime Steaks was busy with its own expansion plans – but in the opposite direction. In January, XO opened a second location in Pepper Pike after a decade spent as downtown's unchallenged leader in the modern steakhouse genre.

"I don't know why I waited so long," says owner Zdenko Zovkic, who had absolutely zero concerns about entering an already crowded market that includes Red, Hyde Park and Fleming's within a mile or so.

Apparently, his confidence was well placed. Despite its brief tenure, XO feels as though it's been here all along, feting the well heeled with goblets of red wine and 2-inch-thick steaks. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the operation is how drastically the environment has been altered, purging every last sign of the dreary Spanish-themed Marbella. In its place is an upscale environment – glamorous, warm, comfortable and surprisingly atypical, made all the more dramatic given that guests enter through the drab lobby of a dated office building. Expected touches like linens, crystal and chandeliers are offset by funky touches like black-and-white cowhide panels and a screaming-white bartop.

When Zovkic opened XO in the Warehouse District back in 2005, he managed to stand out from a similarly crowded meat market by going well beyond the conventional steakhouse fare, gilding the menu with creative, chef-driven starters and sides. Some of those dishes remain a decade later, tweaked here and there but not eliminated. That means that in addition to predictable chophouse appetizers like beef carpaccio, shrimp cocktail and crab cakes, diners can start with sushi, lobster beignets and wild mushroom ravioli.

Sliced, drizzled with spicy ginger mayo and garnished with a pair of chopsticks, the XO tempura roll ($14.95) is all kinds of delicious – a warm and crunchy exterior gives way to a cool, creamy and sweet interior. The kitchen's version of calamari ($13.95) is equally agreeable, with copious amounts of bright capers and tart peppers to break up the monotony of the thick fried rings. And it is always a nice touch when the marinara dipping sauce arrives warm, here served in a stainless measuring cup. On a whim we ordered the blue-cheese lobster beignets ($14.95), an odd arrangement made odder by the mustard dipping sauce. Next time we'll stick to the sushi.

Considering what's to come, it's not at all a bad idea to swap the heavy starters in favor of a salad or two, especially when they are as well composed at the ones served here. A variety of colorful beets, carrots and radishes are sliced wafer-thin and arranged atop a bed of greens in the heirloom vegetable salad ($10.95). The dressing is bright and lemony, and there's plenty of good quality Parmesan cheese. Shared salads are split in the kitchen without so much as a request, with two chilled plates of Caesar salad ($9.50) containing a generous portion of chopped romaine, oven-roasted tomatoes, thin crostini and Parmesan cheese.

At these prices, you expect top-quality steaks and chops – and that's what you get. But you also expect faultless cooking – and that's not what we got. During one visit, a 16-ounce USDA Prime Delmonico ($43.95) arrived rare instead of medium-rare. It was quickly remedied, returning charred, sizzling and every bit as savory as one could hope. On a subsequent visit, a rack of pistachio-crusted New Zealand lamb chops ($34.95) arrived with a wildly uneven preparation. While done on the exterior, the centers remained cold, dark and nearly raw, well short of the medium-rare that the server suggested.

Those two gaffes proved the only ones, fortunately. A petite surf and turf ($27.95), with a small filet and large butterflied prawn, was a win-win in terms of meat and fish cookery. Same goes for a gorgeous flank of pan-roasted salmon ($26.95), its center warm, lush and the opposite of dry. It sat atop a fried potato pancake, which soaked up the buttery, garlicky leek sauce.

In the sides department are crisp, bright and tasty sautéed rapini ($8.95), real (and real good) creamed spinach ($8.95), truffled creamed corn ($9.95) and about a dozen other diet-crushing accoutrements.

One expects a good but pricey wine list at a place like this, and no surprises there, with glass pours starting at $10 for a malbec and climbing to $25 for the popular red blend the Prisoner. The restaurant also has the requisite level of service for a top-of-market steakhouse, with black-clad servers anticipating most requests and frequent rounds by both the manager and owner. After all, it's a system 10 years in the making.

XO Prime Steaks, 29425 Chagrin Blvd., Pepper Pike, 216-378-8988, xoprimesteaks.com.

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