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Eric Daeuber, Special to The Forum, Published January 07 2009

Matching its motto: Cork lives up to ‘good beef, booze’ tag

Fargo’s Cork ’N Cleaver has defined itself the same way for the past 35 years: Good beef and good booze. And there’s no denying it. In the beef and booze category, there’s not much like this restaurant in Fargo or Moorhead.

The Cork ’N Cleaver is an old-fashioned 1970s-style steakhouse right down to the low ceilings, the monastic-style wood and walls and the fireplaces. The building on South University is cozy, warm, inviting and hasn’t apologized for not keeping up with the newer and hipper Fargo that has taken shape over the past five years.

The menu reflects its commitment to the primal after-hours urge to toss back a few drinks to ward off the cold and indulge in the ritual fruits of the hunt.

Nothing does this better than a slice of prime rib ($19.99 for the

12-ounce cut) done rare when asked and served with an au jus that doesn’t do the beef itself justice. Order the wild rice and the onion soup and the experience will be eerily familiar to anyone who frequented steakhouses during the Nixon administration. It’s just good, old-fashioned, honest food.

The restaurant also claims to serve the best steak in Fargo, and that may have been the case a decade or so ago. But the Cork ’N Cleaver is now up against some serious competition on that front. When it comes to a $28 strip steak, it’s reasonable to expect something special from side dishes to the dessert as well as a very fine piece of meat in the middle. Beef at the Cork is consistently good, but the crown for the best is back up for grabs.

Outside of the beef, the menu slows down a bit. If you keep things simple by having your fish pan-fried or your shrimp grilled, you’ll be happy. The Shrimp Oreganata, for example, is a bit of a culinary after-thought for a dish that really requires careful use of fresh oregano.

There’s a temptation to mix the beef with seafood around $22.99 and, in the case of the walleye, it’s not a bad option.

Dessert isn’t the best way to end your meal at the Cork ’N Cleaver. The mud pie ($5.95) comes with nondairy whipped cream and middle-of-the-road chocolate. Have the bartender make you something hot with rum and you’ll enjoy the atmosphere a whole lot better – especially if you landed a seat next to the fire.

The service is a bit uneven; sometimes friendly and sometimes rushed. The wine list is basic and includes the usual Beringers, Coppola and Yellowtail all for around the $20 mark – it’s hard to find something extraordinary on the list.

The common expression these days is, “It is what it is.” But the Cork ’N Cleaver really is. Good beef and good booze. It’s enough to make it a favorite of many and, if you narrow your field of culinary vision to include these two elements, it’s well worth a visit.

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.