Is the steak house at the new River City Casino worth the price of admission? Bet on it.

Jul 14, 2010 at 4:00 am

The exterior of Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse looks like something out of Disney World, a collection of cupolas and arched windows more befitting a fairy-tale princess than a contemporary restaurant where 24 ounces of bone-in, dry-aged, USDA Prime New York strip will set you back a cool $45. That Jeff Ruby's is the signature restaurant of the massive new River City Casino in Lemay goes a long way in explaining this. After all, what is a casino but an amusement park for adults? And in today's ever-more-casual restaurant scene, where but a steak house does the fantasy of fine dining remain so vivid?

Restaurateur Jeff Ruby opened the original location of his eponymous steak house in Cincinnati. (The Queen City connection persists: The "Steak Collinsworth," a play on veal Oscar, is named after former Bengals wide receiver and current NBC sportscaster Cris Collins­worth.) There are Jeff Ruby's in Louisville and Belterra, a casino resort in Indiana that, like River City and Lumière Place, is operated by Pinnacle Entertainment.

You do have to enter the casino to reach Jeff Ruby's, but unlike the restaurants at Lumière Place the steak house is blissfully free of the literal bells and whistles of the gaming floor. If not for the occasional walk-in diners sporting Cards jerseys and jorts, you might forget you were inside a casino.

The décor betrays a definite Art Deco influence, with a snazzy modern twist somewhat reminiscent of the Lester Miller-era Busch's Grove. The most striking design aspect might be the bar, which you see immediately upon entering the restaurant. The bar itself is nothing extraordinary, a semicircular counter surrounding an island on which the bottles are stacked. But directly behind this island is an elevated stage, so that if you sit at the bar while a band is playing, you are essentially in the front row.

The seating is divided between freestanding tables, tables tucked into private nooks and cushy wraparound booths. On each table stands a small framed placard with a picture of Jeff Ruby looking like a badass, dressed all in black, including a hat, smoking a cigar. (For a less branded look at the restaurateur, check out the photographs inside the entrance, where he smiles like a little kid while posing with celebrities such as Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza.) The placard's copy emphasizes that Jeff Ruby's is one of the very, very few steak houses to offer USDA Prime beef, the highest and rarest grade.

This is a misstep, one of the only missteps I experienced here, the sort of thing (the placard, not the specific message) that you would see at Applebee's or T.G.I. Friday's. Because ultimately the steaks at Jeff Ruby's speak for themselves. These are some of the best steaks I have eaten in my life. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bone-in, dry-aged, USDA Prime strip is the best steak I have ever had.

With a few exceptions, the steaks here are seasoned with "Ruby Dust," a secret blend of twenty herbs and spices. So secret is the blend that, according to our server, two different companies make it. Each is responsible for half the ingredients; only at each restaurant are the two halves combined. Really, the spice blend and the story are mostly for show, seeing as how the steaks are broiled in a 1,500-degree oven, which exchanges subtlety for a gorgeous charred crust.

In the case of the New York strip, that crust yields to meat (medium-rare is my preference, but at Jeff Ruby's you can order yours black-and-blue, seared just past the point of the final moo) that is the epitome of what we Americans tend to think of as "beefy": a solid savory backbone with a mineral tang and, thanks to the dry aging, an ever-so-mild funk. The advantages of dry-aged prime are even more apparent in the filet mignon, a cut I generally pass over as more style than substance, tender but lacking in flavor. Here, though, the filet is endowed with a definite beefy taste.

"Ruby's Jewel" features a slightly different preparation. Here a 24-ounce bone-in rib eye (again, dry-aged prime) is rubbed with chili powder and served with blistered shiso peppers (a variety of green chile) and cipollini onions. The rib eye is as flavorful as you'd expect — or, given the $49 price tag, as you'd demand — though I found the chili flavor somewhat distracting in its simplicity. The spice from the pepper was warmer and more complex, while the onions provided a wonderful, lightly sweet counterpart to the meat.

As is standard at steak houses of this caliber, the sides are à la carte. Instead of the tried-and-true baked potato, consider the potatoes Anna, an undeservedly out-of-fashion dish as impressive in presentation as it is in flavor. Slices of potatoes are layered into a cake-like shape and cooked in more butter than you want to know. The exterior is finished to a golden crisp, while the interior reaches a tender state something like a gratin. Also quite good are the mac & cheese, a luscious blend of six cheeses inside an Asiago-cheese crust, and the creamed spinach.

Yes, there are entrées besides steak, and though I do not go to a steak house for anything other than red meat, I was impressed by the thoughtful preparation of the "Halibut Forte." The exterior of the thick piece of fish was beautifully browned, while the interior was firm and snow white. It was sauced in a rich lemon-butter sauce with crab meat, mushrooms, spinach and asparagus — decadent enough that you could pretend you'd ordered steak. (Almost, anyway.)

There is a raw bar, with shrimp cocktail (presented in a hilariously oversized glass), stone crab, sushi rolls and raw oysters, this last item exquisite, plump and sweet, and kissed by the sea. Appetizers include admirably understated ravioli filled with buffalo-milk ricotta and topped with San Marzano tomatoes, sage and serrano ham. The crab bisque, stoked with a generous serving of actual crab meat, is the best I've had outside the East Coast.

The wine list is of the breadth that wins Wine Spectator awards. The dessert list, alas, is perfunctory (cheesecake, crème brûlée, flourless chocolate cake). Service varies. On our first visit, we had a professional server of the sort who is more annoyed than you are that your appetizers arrived at separate times. On our second visit, we felt ignored by our server and the runners for much of the time — unacceptable when the final cost for two diners, with a reasonable wine selection, will exceed $200.

Don't visit Jeff Ruby's expecting to skimp. It is a restaurant that exists not to meet the latest trends in preparation or sustainability but to cater to your fantasy of indulgence. And while it might not be a fairy tale, it certainly provides a happy ending.