1355 North Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
11582 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley
My pal Samurai Jim is in some ways a paragon of the classic Bachelorus americanus species. He loves good Scotch, good red meat, a brisk six-mile run in the morning, and smart, pretty blondes. When he heard that I’d never eaten at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, he offered to treat me to a Restaurant Week dinner there. Jim’s squeeze Michelle and our friend Fred (also Ruth’s virgins) came along, too.
Ruth’s Chris is the largest chain of upscale steakhouses in America. It was founded in New Orleans 43 years ago by Ruth Fertel and spread from there. The restaurant made its name by serving USDA prime beef cut thick and cooked at ultra-hot temperatures.
Our venture was a night of discoveries. First, as with so many other high-end restaurants, Ruth’s Chris has been paying attention to the awful state of the U.S. economy. Their response takes the form of a relatively affordable prix-fixe menu for the season, called “Summer Celebration for Two.” It offers three-course meals with several choices for each course at $89 per couple, with optional wine pairings for all three courses at $20 per person. What a deal! If you’ve always been curious about what steak tastes like when cooked at 1800˚F, this could be your chance to find out.
The second revelation is that the restaurant is neither as old-boys-snooty in atmosphere as some other steakhouses, nor as generally pricey as I’d feared. San Diego has caught up to Ruth’s Chris both in economics and in style. That is, the $35 entrée has become as common as dirt (been to the Gaslamp lately?). As for style, San Diegans and visitors dressed in tees and jeans or even board shorts (as they consume their $35 entrées) are also the norm, at this restaurant as at most others around here. (Only flip-flops, swim trunks, and wife-beater tanks might push the local concept of “dressy casual” a little too far.) The thoroughly heterogeneous Restaurant Week crowd at the Harbor Drive location included families with yard-apes (barely) in tow, young daters with the gals in shiny polyester-satin minis (say — didn’t I own that dress in ’69?), elderly couples enjoying a night on the town, and a few suits, presumably expensing their business dinners.
The third discovery is that, while emphasizing red meat, the chain also remains true to its New Orleans birthplace (even if the finks moved their headquarters elsewhere after Katrina). If prime beef isn’t your thing, it’s optional — the menu includes several Louisiana haute cuisine choices, as well as other new American classics, e.g., seared ahi. (Is there a restaurant left in the whole USA that doesn’t serve seared ahi?) Some of the NOLA appetizer choices include shrimp remoulade, Louisiana crab cakes, barbecued shrimp, and seafood gumbo, while the entrées include a “blackened” lobster tail. Several of these are available on the “summer celebration” menu.
Fred and Michelle went with the Restaurant Week choices, while Jim and I explored the (slightly) higher-priced summer spread. My choices gravitated to New Orleans, natch. I started with the okra-based seafood gumbo, which was light and tomato-y, filled with seafood shreds and a few cubes of ham, but no identifiable pieces of seafood, no perceptible roux base, and no detectable hot pepper in any form. Correctly, it held a small mound of steamed white rice in the center, so you could choose how much rice you wanted to mix into the liquid. There are 250,000 gumbos in the Crescent City — but none I’ve ever tasted are like this one. It was reasonably flavorful but closer to a vastly improved version of Campbell’s canned gumbo (that is, a thin red soup, rather than a hearty brown colloid) than to any I’ve eaten in its hometown.
Similarly, my main course of barbecued shrimp (in NOLA, this is always a sauté, never a barbecue) was delicate and refined, with tender peeled shrimp in a buttery white-wine cream sauce with the faintest hint of cayenne. The more typical dish (whether from Mosca’s or Upperline or any of the Brennan’s restaurant empire) is creamless, garlic rich, spicy, hearty, and herbal, loaded with rosemary, as likely to start with olive oil as butter, and often messy to eat, with unpeeled shrimps. Ruth’s Chris’s rendition tastes good, but it’s not what I expected — it’s plantation-owner Frenchy rather than “ethnic.” Both it and the gumbo made me think of Antoine’s, a once-aristocratic restaurant that my NOLA friends look upon with sentimental fondness paired with deep skepticism — a once-beloved heirloom rotted into a moldy-fig tourist trap. I bet I’d love Ruth’s Chris’s shrimp remoulade. The typical NOLA version can be quite fierce with Creole mustard — even a tad harsher than I really like — while I’m sure Ruth’s Chris’s version would be gentler.
Jim began with a good-normal Caesar salad, distinguished a bit by a large wafer of Italian-style crisp-fried peppered Parmesan. His “mixed grill” included a fine jumbo lump crab cake, with a minimum of filler, that really did evoke Louisiana cooking. It was lightly coated with breadcrumbs that tasted as if they were made from the flavorful, salty baguettes that serve as the house bread, lending a touch of coarseness to the cake’s texture. The seasonings tasted right, too. “These are a real challenge to Oceanaire’s crab cakes,” Jim said. Filling out his plate were a tiny (four-ounce) portion of filet mignon done medium-rare (he’d asked for rare) and a roasted free-range chicken breast pleasingly stuffed with melted garlic-herb cheese to keep dryness at bay.
Michelle and Fred both scored bull’s-eyes with their Restaurant Week starters. (Neither of their appetizers, alas, is included in the summer prix fixe.) Her indulgent broiled large mushroom caps were stuffed with crabmeat and rich, creamy goo (béchamel sauce, I presume), lightly dusted with toasted bread crumbs. Even more splendid, if possible, was Fred’s au courant seared ahi — thin rectangles of the darkest crimson tuna any of us has seen outside of a sushi bar’s maguro, flash-cooked a second or two past raw. The slices were garnished by a subtle, barely there sauce involving ginger, mustard, and beer. It was sharp, bright, and irresistible.