Once I'm seated in one of the cushy leather booths at Council Oak Steaks and Seafood, located at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, the first thing I notice isn't the glorious glass rendering of the Seminole Tribe's sacred tree that gives the restaurant its name. It's not the regal overhead chandeliers or the bustling efficiency of the smartly uniformed wait staff.
It's the smoke.
I can't believe smoking is allowed anywhere near food service in 2014. But cigarette and cigar smokers have free reign in the adjoining bar. The Seminoles make their own rules. There are non-smoking areas throughout the casino, but any steakhouse glamour quickly fades when you realize you'll be eating a $58 cut of prime rib in a room that smells like a cheap motel, circa 1988. Fair warning.
After this smoky reality settles in, Council Oak goes uphill fast. Because in almost every other way, it is a superb steakhouse. Our waiter is a virtuoso of modern service whom I remember from restaurants in Miami Beach and on Las Olas Boulevard. He is neither too formal or too casual, always on point with a sidekick busboy to match.
Dinner starts with excellent cocktails and a bread basket that contains these buttery, crackerlike sticks coated in black sesame seeds. You'll want that bread to sop up the puddles of butter in the escargot ($16). Oysters Rockefeller ($18) are impeccably topped with spinach and hollandaise sprinkled with paprika. Lean beef carpaccio ($19) is plated with crispy pancetta and equally crispy fried capers, which makes for a very nice combination of textures.
There are two wagyu steaks on the menu from Australian farm Cabassi & Co., but at $149 for a 14-ounce New York strip and $119 for an 8-ounce tenderloin, we leave those for the casino's big winners.
Besides, the dry-aging program at Council Oak is a thing to behold. A glass wall separates diners from the Butcher Shop, a rock-salt brick-walled drying room where we watch steaks being trimmed for cooking. These are USDA prime, and deliciously tender.
A 12-ounce New York strip ($49) and a bone-in cowboy rib-eye ($64) are outstanding examples of each cut. The rib-eye is nicely marbled and therefore richer than the chewier, but still tender, strip.
On Fridays and Saturdays, Council Oak serves prime rib ($44 for a 12-ounce/$58 for the 16-ounce), which I can't resist in any steakhouse. I'm not disappointed, especially when I'm told that along with creamy horseradish sauce, the restaurant serves my preferred grated horseradish root, usually made with a little vinegar, salt and sugar.
All the classic steakhouse sides are here, from creamy cheesy dauphinoise potatoes($9) to sautéed mushrooms ($8). Council Oak corn ($10) gets much of its incredible flavor from being grilled before it's mixed with rendered bacon, shallots, thyme and parsley.
For dessert, the kitchen puts out a nice chocolate soufflé ($14), petite but eggy and rich. In answer to the New York Cronut craze, there is a cream-filled confection called a COissant ($16), multilayered, buttery and, I'm told, very time consuming. It's a novelty I would resist. Instead, order bananas Foster cheesecake ($14), with roasted bananas and banana liqueur added to the batter and a crust made with white chocolate and praline paste.
The dining room, which underwent a $1.5 million renovation four years ago, could have been designed with more intimacy in mind. Perhaps it's our spot in the dining room, but it seems like the whole world has walked by our table on this night. Then again, this is a casino.
The 10-year-old Council Oak was the model for NYY Steak, the Yankees-themed steakhouses now found at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, at Yankees Stadium in the Bronx and in midtown Manhattan. Minus the smoke, it's a model well worth repeating.
1 Seminole Way, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Hollywood
Cost: Expensive-very expensive
Credit cards: All major
Hours: Dinner nightly, Saturday lunch, Sunday brunch
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Can be noisy
Outside smoking: Also in the bar, making for a smoky environment
For kids: Boosters, highchairs, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Free garage parking; $7 valet