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It's rare for me to send a dish back. But that's just what I did after one bite of Spencer's for Steaks and Chops' side dish of "loaded" hash browns. Those taters — with flecks of smoked bacon, local Beehive white cheddar and onions that were supposed to be sweet but instead were burned — came with a $10 price tag. The acrid taste ruined the entire 8-inch round, presented in a sizzling hot cast-iron skillet resting on a wooden trivet.

That kitchy skillet, and its inedible contents, gave the exact opposite impression of what a high-end (read: pricey) steakhouse should give.

All the ritzy elements you'd expect are present. Dark wood, high-backed banquettes, white tablecloths, servers in white short coats and gorgeous Riedel crystal stemware. Those thin-lipped (read: expensive) glasses emphasize the importance of the wine in the glass and the wine program as a whole.

Spencer's wine list has just under 500 wines. What sets this wine list apart from others is the care that went into selecting unique wines with a range of prices. Sommelier Louis Koppel knows what he's doing. It's just a shame that on neither of my visits was it suggested that I speak with a sommelier to decide on wine.

Without guidance, we chose glasses of 2007 Mer Soleil Silver, Unoaked Chardonnay, Santa Lucia Highlands, California ($12) and 2009 Crios de Susana Balbo, Torrontes, Salta, Argentina ($8) and, on another visit, a bottle of 2006 Domaine Saint Damien Gigondas Vieilles Vignes for $55. Just over two times the cost of retail, the Rhone blend of Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre grapes paired well with our 28-day aged prime beef choices.

The 1,600-degree infrared broiler may have had something to do with the irresistible crispy edges on a 14-ounce steak ($36); the prime rib ($20) came moist with lots of fat throughout; and an unadorned, 8-ounce filet mignon ($38) arrived juicy and perfectly medium-rare.

If you must gild the lily, order one of the four "enhancements" ($4-$7) — five-peppercorn brandy sauce; onions and mushrooms; blue cheese and walnut crust; or asparagus, crab and béarnaise sauce — aka Oscar-style. Four other steak choices are priced from $39-$52.

Other than beef, there's lamb, chicken and fish ($24-$35). I ordered a kurobuta (Berkshire) pork chop ($28) served with sautéed swiss chard, bacon and pine nuts with sour cherry sauce. Surely the kitchen knows how to cover an exposed bone prior to cooking. Our poor, charred chop disintegrated when I touched it. But the rest of the meat was a rosy medium-rare — just the way I like it.

The non-beef proteins come with sides but if it's cow you're after, then you'll have to pay $8 each for hefty portions of creamed or sautéed spinach, fries, asparagus, creamed corn, and dry and under-seasoned five-cheese macaroni and cheese.

Appetizers were uneven. A romaine hearts salad ($10) was overdressed with a lovely tasting dressing. A plate of "black and blue" beef carpaccio ($14) sported gossamer-thin rounds of sumptuous raw beef with peppery arugula at its center but roasted tomatoes and mushrooms detracted from the star of the dish. A squeeze of lemon and sprinkling of salt should have been the only other components.

Onion soup ($9) lacked depth of flavor, while the crab cakes ($16) were a success. The two pucks had plenty of sweet Dungeness meat, and very little binder; they arrived golden brown on a plate smeared with hot spicy mustard, steamed carrot slices and artichoke quarters.

Like the large sides, desserts should also be shared. The dry shortcake in the strawberry shortcake ($9), curiously sandwiches a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream, then is topped with whipped cream and encircled with strawberries. The chocolate "naughty" cake ($9) needs a name change. Think of a flourless chocolate cake, with a scoop of ice cream and a ploop of whipped cream. The workhorse of dessert menus, crème brûlée ($8), was the crowd-pleaser, with its crackling sugared crust and creamy vanilla insides.

Service also had its ups and downs. Despite a near-empty dining room one evening, water glasses remained empty for long periods, napkins weren't refolded if someone used the facilities and, on one visit, entrées and sides arrived prior to the wine. These may sound like trivialities, but when the bill exceeds $100, service should be seamless.

After-dinner mints are perhaps the most petty example. But on one visit, I almost broke a tooth. On another visit, while they were less stale, I couldn't help but think back to those unsavory hash browns. First impressions are everything.


Spencer's for Steaks and Chops

Food • HHhj

Mood • HHH

Service • HHhj

Noise • b

With Spencer's steep prices, you'd think everything would be as good as the steak and impressive wine list; but think again. Missteps prevent this steakhouse from being one of Salt Lake City's best.

Location • 255 S. West Temple (inside the Hilton), Salt Lake City; 801-238-4748

Hours • Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday to Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Children's menu • No

Prices • $$$$

Liquor • Full bar

Corkage • $15; waived with an equal amount of wine purchased

Reservations • Accepted

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • No

On-site parking • Valet, free with a validation

Credit cards • All major