High Steaks 

Getting babied at Ruth's

Getting babied at Ruth's

At 6:15 on the morning after we ate at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, I pushed my way through all the New Year’s Resolutionists crowding the downtown YMCA. As I peddled away on the recumbent bike, 25 minutes into my 40-minute ride, my friend Bill, who makes a pretty decent living as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, asked if I had had a good meal anywhere lately.

“Why, as a matter of fact I have,” I replied, slightly out of breath from a rigorous uphill climb. “Just last night we went to the new Ruth’s Chris and had a fabulous meal.

“How timely,” I teased, “that the new location is open just in time for the 100th General Assembly of the Tennessee state Legislature.” Bill looked a little wistful. The Legislature’s new ethics law limits lobbyists to spending only $50 per person per meal. That $50, Bill admitted, wouldn’t even begin to cover the cost of a senator’s big, fat, bloody, T-Bone, not to mention the baked potato, asparagus with Hollandaise, and double martini.

Coasting downhill, I suggested to Bill that, if he showed a little self-control, he could probably could do Ruth’s Chris for under $50 a person. Or, I proposed, the senator could always pick up his own tab, and then there’d be no ethics issue. Bill was still laughing when I left the gym 20 minutes later.

No matter what your station in life, you’ll feel like a bigwig at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, now located on the lower level of Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel. The makeover of the former Sfuzzi is nothing short of remarkable. Sfuzzi was contemporary, trendy, and cool; Ruth’s Chris is classic, solid, and warm. Dark woods, linen tablecloths, glowing candles, and wooden blinds create a private-club ambiance. Best of all, dark burgundy carpeting has lowered the cacophonous noise level that plagued Sfuzzi.

The bar is the ideal spot to enjoy a cocktail—perhaps the currently popular Cosmopolitan—while waiting for a table. Our 8:30 reservation—and I do recommend reservations at Ruth’s Chris—was honored, right on time.

The Ruth’s Chris menu has stayed exactly the same as it was at the former location, but prices have gone up, almost across the board. The $6.95 escargot is now $7.95; the $3.95 Caesar salad is now $4.95; the $2.50 steak fries are $3.25; the $2.95 fried onion rings are $3.95; the $19.95 filet is $23.95; the $21.95 lamb chops are now $26.95. And remember, everything at Ruth’s Chris is à la carte. The only thing that comes with your steak is a glistening pool of sizzling butter and a sprig of parsley. Lobbyists will be well advised to bring their pocket calculators.

If you aren’t keeping track of pennies or calories, you might start with the escargots, which are on the small side, served out of their shells in a buttery garlic broth. Or you might opt for the flavorful stuffed mushrooms, which boast real crabmeat. If I had to choose between the barbecued shrimp Orleans and the shrimp rémoulade, I’d pick the former.

Given the high quality of everything else on the Ruth’s Chris menu, the salads were one of two glaring disappointments. Tough, tasteless outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce played a major role in several of the salads, and the artichoke hearts and hearts of palm were both canned. If I had wanted iceberg, I’d have ordered the head lettuce salad (at $3.95, a stupendous markup, considering that a head of iceberg retails for 89 cents).The Caesar was woefully overdressed, and the romaine was bitter. Don’t even think of ordering either of the tomato salads in the dead of winter.

The other disappointment was the object we discovered swaddled in a linen napkin and posing as a loaf of bread. With the texture of a sponge and all the flavor of a cotton swab, this “Italian” bread was what I would expect to find at the MBA spaghetti supper. What exactly is the problem here? Nashville now has plenty of fabulous bread sources. A basket of bread is the first item set before the diner. It sets the tone and, believe me, first impressions don’t just count—they linger.

Of course, considering the gargantuan sizes of the potatoes, the vegetable servings, and the entrées, it might be best not to fill up on the bread anyhow. More than once at Jimmy Kelly’s I have stuffed myself with corncakes before my steak has even hit the grill.

At Ruth’s Chris, broccoli is served by the bunch, asparagus spears come 24 to a plate, baked potatoes are the size of small mammals, and steaks are so big they should be accompanied by a cardiologist’s beeper number. The petite filet weighs 8 ounces. The T-bone weighs in at 20 ounces, and the veal chop comes in at 14. Lobsters begin at 2 pounds. The one we ordered tipped the scales at 3.2 pounds and tipped the cash register at $59.24. It should probably have been given its own table.

That said, I can also report that the meat—from the filet to the lamb chops—and the seafood were spectacular. With just one exception, everything was perfectly cooked. The veal chop was like butter, and the lamb chops could be cut with a fork. The lobster was sweet and juicy, despite its monstrous size. Non-carnivores will be happy with the thick salmon filet, poached under the broiler.

Among the potatoes, we especially liked the baked, au gratin, and ultra-cripsy shoestring options. Among the veggies, we loved the creamed spinach, the asparagus with hollandaise, and the batter-dipped fried jumbo onion rings. The crunchy layer of browned sugar on top of the broiled tomatoes was unexpected and unnecessary.

We had been forewarned about the pool of butter that surrounds every steak. The menu states, “Our steaks are served sizzling in a butter sauce. Your preference: extra or none.” It’s not my cup of tea, but I’ll bet there are people who order extra.

Service was top-notch, just what you’d expect when you are paying top prices. When we asked the waiter if our huge lobster would be tender, he replied that it would. When we asked if he could guarantee it, he responded with confidence, “I can’t guarantee it will be tender, but I can guarantee that, if it’s not, it will be replaced or taken off your bill.” The T-Bone steak was delivered medium rather than medium rare as requested, but it was promptly whisked away and replaced. There was even an apology. Music to my ears.

Among the desserts, we sampled just the bread pudding with Jack Daniel’s whiskey sauce. We liked it a lot.

The wine list probably includes something that will catch your fancy, but be prepared to pay for it. Prices are as high as, or higher than, those at other comparable restaurants in town.

Total tab for eight, including $98 in wine charges, was $494.94. When I go back, on my own tab, I’ll share an appetizer, a potato, and a vegetable. With two entrées and a $38 bottle of wine, I estimate that that comes to a little less than $50 per person. Hey Capitol Hill, come on down! Let the games begin.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House is located at 2100 West End Ave. (320-0163). 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Sun. All major credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested.

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