Michelle ordered her petite filet (six ounces) medium-rare; it arrived rare-rare. (She and Jim switched filets even before our plates began their ritual rotation around the table.) Fred had the 12-ounce rib-eye, a generous choice for a discounted menu.
All the beef served by this chain is USDA prime. It’s been wet-aged (encased in plastic shrink-wrap for about three weeks), which tenderizes meat but doesn’t enrich or intensify the flavor the way dry-aging does. (Dry-aging, where the meat’s exposed to cold air, is rarely done now. It not only takes a lot of space but also shrinks the meat, making it more expensive — the buyer pays for a pound but winds up with 12 or 13 ounces of raw serving weight.) Whatever cut you order, the beef is cut thick and seared in a special superheated oven, which puts a good hard, caramelized crust on it, bringing out the flavor. Then it’s served on a heated plate with sizzling butter.
And yet — and yet. At the risk of being branded a heretic and stoned in the town square, I admit that I didn’t love either steak as much as the petite filet that I’d enjoyed the previous night, served with béarnaise sauce, at Cowboy Star, a new steak-and-game house in the East Village owned by Victor Jimenez, a former Ruth’s Chris chef. (Watch this space — review upcoming pronto.) Nor did I love the prime steaks here as much as the lower USDA choice–grade rib-eye, marinated in garlic and olive oil, at Turf Club, or the memorable choice rib-eye I once enjoyed at Bandar’s annex, which at the time was making a stab at playing steakhouse. When I was a kid, any good steak from high on the steer was such a novelty, it seemed a sacrilege to serve it with a sauce or more seasoning than salt. But as my mom’s business prospered and steak became less of a special-occasion meat, by my teens, I was rubbing sirloins with oregano and garlic and sautéing them in olive oil for the livelier flavor I’d tasted in New York’s Italian restaurants. By now, a wet-aged steak all by itself, with no béarnaise or bordelaise or marinade, doesn’t thrill me at all. (Too bad our branch of L&G’s Steakhouse closed, as it was the one place to offer a dry-aged rib-eye, a real knockout — but even there, that great hunk of flesh still came with a béarnaise.)
Normally, Ruth’s Chris’s steaks (unlike less aristocratic entrées) come with nothing but the hot butter — the family-sized sides cost extra ($8 to feed four easily). Both the special menus included a choice of sides, gratis. Roasted garlic-mashed potatoes were lean but tasty and balanced. Creamed spinach was heavy and rather glutinous from flour-thickening. It’s not based on heat-reduced cream; it’s béchamel again, made with milk thickened by a light roux. Roasted tomatoes turned out to be huge slices of fully ripe beefsteak tomatoes, almost scary in their deep redness and tasting intense and wonderful. And potatoes au gratin were swathed in melted cheese and cream, seeming far too rich at first, but soul-mate/plate-mate Fred and I kept going back for more, bite by tiny bite, until they were gone.
All of us, except for Scotch-drinking Jim, opted for the wine-pairing. It proved interesting and appropriate — engaging wines all the way, with choices offered for each course. The first-course sunny Pinot Grigio from Estancia (Monterey) dispelled some of my prejudices against this grape — it was a rich, full-bodied mouthful. The Mark West Pinot Noir (Sonoma) was light but with some depth and character, potentially a perfect match for the wild salmon offered among the regular entrées.
For the main courses, there was a Cabernet from Avalon (Napa Valley). It was reasonably serious but a bit too impressed with itself, in the mode of so many California Cabs. (They remind me of grad students, smart but pompous. Bordeaux wines are their professors.) I much preferred the playful Shiraz from Evans and Tate (Margaret River, Australia). The older I get, the more I appreciate the friendly grapes of the Rhone, wherever they’re grown.
The dessert course also brought a selection of sweet wines. Fred chose the sparkling Italian rosé (Banfi, Rosa Regale). “It tastes like apple juice,” he said, and it did. The sparkling Michelle Chiarlo Moscato D’Asti twinkled like Tinkerbell in the glass and in the mouth.
Perhaps put off by the sight of the huge slabs of cheesecake delivered to several of our neighbors, Michelle and Fred opted for Chocolate Sin, which takes Chocolate Decadence one step further into Chocolate Damnation. Creamy in consistency, it’s a cake that seems to be made wholly of bittersweet chocolate, sugar, and butter, like a chocolate truffle aiming to be a mousse, and it’s coated all over with chocolate syrup. Even chocoholic Jim found it a bit much.
But the N’awlins-style bread pudding with whiskey cream sauce was as good a version of that pudding as I’ve ever tasted. What makes the Crescent City version distinctive is that it’s made with stale baguettes — not your croissants or brioche or Wonder Bread or any other pantywaist light bread. It can be heavy and logy, but Ruth’s Chris’s version somehow sprouts wings to fly. Maybe it’s the bathtub’s worth of velvety whiskey cream sauce soaking it that, paradoxically, loosens the dense texture and lets it soar. It reminded me of those Middle Eastern/north Indian desserts always named “Palace Bread” in their native languages (ekmek kadayif, esh es soraya, etc.) that transcend quotidian stale-bread origins to become, in imagination, the breads served to royalty or the gods.
The first and last thing to remember about Ruth’s Chris is that, however upscale, it’s a nationwide chain. I don’t know how chains decide about flavors — focus groups? surveys? — but by whatever means, the decisions are designed to appeal not to your taste or mine, but to everybody’s taste. They’ve done a good job of figuring out how to develop the widest appeal. Hence, there’s no real adventure to eating here, unlike eating at a chef-owned restaurant. There’s no risk of disaster, and no chance of individuality, imagination, transcendence. It’s not fine art, just simple physical pleasure, and Ruth’s Chris delivers exactly that.