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.
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.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
* * *(Very Good)
1355 North Harbor Drive, downtown; 619-233-1422; also 11582 El Camino Real, Del Mar, 858-755-1454; ruthschris.com.
HOURS: Monday–Thursday 5:00–10:00 p.m., Friday until 10:30 p.m.; Saturday 4:30–10:30 p.m., Sunday 4:30–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $12–$15; entrées and steaks, $21–$65; sides, $8; salads, $7–$15; desserts, $8–$10. Summer special prix-fixe three-course dinners for two, with several choices for each course, $89 per couple, with $20 per person matched wine flight.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: USDA prime steaks (wet-aged) and standard steakhouse sides, other modern American classics including New Orleans specialties. International wine list from five continents with bottles at all price points, huge selection by the glass. Full bar, both classic and creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: Crab-stuffed mushrooms; Louisiana crab cakes; seared ahi slices; steak of choice or mixed grill; broiled tomatoes; bread pudding.
NEED TO KNOW: Ramped entrance, elevator to dining room. Valet parking $6, or validated half-price self-parking in Holiday Inn lot. Lively but painless sound level, harbor views. Mostly semi-casual dress. Some outdoor dining on small balcony. One lacto-vegetarian entrée, plus vast choice of sides and salads, but very little for vegans.