Von's Steakhouse and Oyster Bar

Food: 3.5 suns of 5

Ambience: 3.5 of 5

Service: 4 of 5

Dinner for two excluding drinks: Basic, $60. Multi-course, $120.

Steakhouses — especially the high-priced ones — tread a fine line.

On the one hand, they must stick with the tried and true, the rib eyes and tenderloins covered in molten butter that an older, monied crowd expects.

On the other, the next generation(s) has less appetite for acres of red meat, expects dishes with more zest, expects casual elegance and has higher standards. If it’s a $28 chicken plate, it’d better be really good chicken in a really good recipe.

The steakhouse chains, hard-wired to convention, only change their menus with the greatest of reluctance.

Independents have more room to find that ever-evolving balance.

Von’s Steakhouse and Oyster Bar is as independent a restaurant as you’ll find in Edmonton, at its Gateway and 81 Avenue location for some 30 years. Kudos to Von’s for not only surviving but continuing to be a destination of choice. We dined as a family last weekend, and the restaurant was full.

Von’s handles the menu balancing act with aplomb. It has your basic steaks and a few classics — Steak Oscar for goodness’ sake! But it also offers a good range of appetizers, salads and entrees, and enough seafood — as per the second half of its name — to warrant serious study of the menu.

Von’s, clearly opting for innovation, has just hired award-winning executive chef Shane Chartrand. The “before and after” comparisons will be interesting.

Von’s greatest challenge at this point is consistency.

Oysters, check, excellent. Mussels, check, excellent. Steak salad, check, excellent. Rib eye, check, excellent. Bread pudding, check, excellent. The rest of the dinner, so-so.

The bread service was fresh, warm, napkin-covered, arriving with a superb raspberry and fig infused butter.

The crab shack oysters were fabulous. Von’s reputation for its oysters is utterly deserved. These four babies were plump and succulent, smothered in garlic, asiago cheese and shredded crab, zipped from broiler to table with bubbling perfection.

Von’s has basic mussel sauces, but also offers gorgonzola cheese with Dijon mustard cream. Like the oysters, the west coast mussels were fresh and full, the savoury sauce something different but right on the money.

Finally, a steak salad where the meat, cut to salad-bite portions, was near perfect. What I ordered, medium rare to rare, was what I got. The salad’s warm elements — caramelized onion, red pepper pimento, the beef — played well against the crisp lettuce and chopped portabella mushroom.

The rib eye steak was a beautiful cut, done perfectly. The bread pudding with caramel sauce and a scoop of ice cream disappeared as six spoons went on the attack.

But, to use a description once attributed to a South Asian national sports team, Von’s food “soared in the mountains, but faltered in the foothills.”

Alongside the culinary triumphs came glaring inconsistencies. The visual presentations were not strong. The French fries accompanying the rib eye were dull and soggy.

The “sweet heat” salmon emanated neither heat nor sweet, was slightly dry and was overpowered by an aggressive barley risotto side.

The blueberry and brie chicken sounded interesting, but wasn’t. The chicken, again, was on the dry side, the flavours faint.

The goat cheese filet mignon was uninspiring, terribly dull. The crème brule dessert was run of the mill.

One is inclined to overlook inconsistency when entrée prices are in the $20 range. But at Von’s, entrees hover on either side of $30, with top beef cuts at $35 plus. When dinner for six with shared appetizers and one bottle of wine leaves the wallet $300 lighter, He Who Pays the Bill has the right to expect all-around excellence.

Service, incidentally, was excellent.

It will be intriguing to see how Chef Chartrand overhauls the Von’s menu once he settles in.

But he has a more immediate challenge, to get everything coming out of Von’s kitchen up to consistent quality.