Many deadly sins transpire nightly at a place like Ruth's Chris Steak House. Pride, envy, lust and gluttony are but a few of the reasons steak houses exist, and why their numbers have proliferated in recent years, from upscale chains like Morton's, Fleming's and Smith &Wollensky to downmarket ventures like LongHorn, Bugaboo Creek and Outback. They're restaurant counterparts to Hummers, McMansions and Barry Bonds; we like them because they're bigger, flashier and more expensive than last year's Next Big Things. There was once a Ruth's Chris in downtown St. Louis. It closed years back. Now the franchise has returned, in the more sanitized environs of downtown Clayton.
The menu touts "custom-aged Midwestern beef," most of it graded USDA Prime, broiled at 1,800 degrees "to lock in the corn-fed flavor." Upon presenting entrées (whether steak or chops of veal, lamb and pork), servers warn that the plates beneath clock in at an intimidating 500 degrees. Not mentioned is the fact that Ruth's Chris wet-ages its beef. To some, characterizing the latter as "custom" constitutes a misnomer: Wet-aging, a common tenderizing technique, is accomplished by vacuum-sealing meat in plastic, locking in moisture at the expense of concentrating flavors. Dry-aging, a more rarefied process, is costlier, necessitating a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment; wet-aging can be carried out en route from slaughterhouse to kitchen. (When we asked about Ruth's Chris steaks, our waiter was disarmingly frank: "Yeah, we Cryovac 'em.") Bottom line: You're ponying up top dollar $25.95 for a twelve-ounce rib eye, $39.95 for a T-bone, a bombastic $74 for a porterhouse-for-two for steak that's second-best. I don't know about you, but I find it hard to remain haughty when facing that fact.
Then again, perhaps paying a lot is the price you pay to experience the thrill of paying a lot. In that respect, it's not orgiastic, it's onanistic.
And peppery, evidently: Black pepper appears to be the predominant flavor component of Ruth's Chris' steaks. Witness the salt, pepper and parsley crust that was practically visible atop a petit filet (as was the pool of butter peeking out from below), while its medium-cooked middle retained a pleasantly tender, tartare-like texture. A bone-in "cowboy" rib eye seared the tongue with its pepperiness, and too much so. At times a gentler hand controlled the kitchen's peppermill; on a subsequent evening the filet escaped pepper overload, resulting in a lush and supple steak, through and through.
A veal chop was peppery but thanks to red and green bells. The meat was sweet, as were the peppers, but those flavors were overpowered by a musky, inelegant onslaught of marinated garlic and onions, and a scattering of chopped chiles. Twin pork chops suffered from the reverse effect: The pork was tough and tasted like sausage, while its topping of cooked apple slices came through sweet and simple.
Don't get me wrong: These steaks are good. But a steak at a capital-s-capital-h Steak House ought to be a succulent, luscious, heart-stopping platter of protein. It should be monumental, a memory to smile and salivate over in the days to come. The steaks at Ruth's Chris are big, and they're handled competently in the kitchen, but they do not reach this pinnacle.
Where were we? As is the norm at steak houses, the price of a slab of meat gets you the meat; sides cost extra. Golden-fried shoestring fries tasted like they looked, offering up a crisp-bordering-on-splintery texture reminiscent of Andy Capp's bagged chips a sensory stroll down Childhood Snack Food Lane. Potatoes Lyonnaise were a more mature choice, sliced into thin squares and sautéed with chunks of white onion. Crunchy onion rings yielded the yeasty sweetness of challah bread.
Ruth's Chris handles green things better than it does brown ones. A portion of broccoli was as big as a leprechaun's head, and just as green. Asparagus stalks were juicy yet crunchy, though their hollandaise sauce lacked lemony zing. The chopped salad featured a nice array of bitter radicchio, briny hearts of palm and springlike cherry tomatoes, plus iceberg lettuce, spinach, red onions and bits of bacon, all of it topped by a fun sprinkling of fried onions. The mayonnaise-like dressing, which bathed the salad cole-slaw-style, was too much of a good thing.
The large wine list traffics heavily in expensive California varietals from all the best places (Russian River Valley, Mendocino, Napa) and makers (Caymus, Turnbull, Mondavi). Desserts cap off a meal with similar weightiness. Chocolate Sin Cake we dubbed Done to Death by Chocolate for its over-the-top richness, which outdid its alluring espresso essence. Chocolate mousse cheesecake brought back memories of freezer-"baked" Oreo-crust pie. Though the texture was smooth, the cocoa tang was harsh. Much better were the caramelized banana cream pie, whose airy custard center was surrounded by fresh banana, and the bread pudding, studded with raisins, redolent with eggy sweetness and capped off by a bourbon-spiked cream sauce that tasted like a shot of Jack Daniel's.
In the end, what sticks out after a visit to Ruth's Chris is the ostentations: The $3 valet service even though a public parking lot sits right across the street. The lobster tank adjacent to the maitre d's podium. The glass of Silver Oak cabernet that costs $33. The wall-mounted waterfall contraptions affixed inside each bathroom stall that tinkle nonstop. The way the servers pass their downtime by polishing and repolishing the wine glasses at empty tables. The wonky gesticulations of the host as he expounds on the menu and delivers the rehearsed spiel about Ruth's Chris' humble beginnings. The way that story goes, New Orleans resident Ruth Fertel was only looking to cover her kid's college tuition when she mortgaged her house to buy the 60-seat Chris Steak House back in '65.
Never mind that the Fertel of yesteryear probably couldn't have afforded to dress right for a place like this one, let alone eat here.