Tennessee-based Ruby Tuesday gets a makeover, and the results are surprisingly good 

A few weeks back, Ruby Tuesday reflected an unexpectedly rosy glow onto the restaurant sector of the stock market. The Maryville, Tenn.-based company's beleaguered share price surged 50 percent in one day, dragging other restaurant names up the charts along with it, at least for a while. Equity analysts attributed the uptick to everything from debt reduction to decreasing commodity prices to cost controls. Equity analysts sure know how to make food sound yummy.

Over here at the food critic's desk, we don't know nothing 'bout de-leveraging balance sheets or hedging commodity prices, but we did hear one explanation that made sense: The Ruby Tuesday bounce was due in part to the fact that when the company released third-quarter earnings, things weren't as bad as everyone expected.

Funny, the same thing happened when we ate lunch there.

After years of driving past Ruby Tuesday at the northeast corner of the Mall at Green Hills, snubbing the eatery for its soggy salad bar, gluey soups and dated decor, we were pleasantly surprised on a series of lunchtime visits. No longer a clutter-fest of Tiffany-style lamps, snowshoes and movie memorabilia, the 2009 Ruby Tuesday looks more like a West Elm store, furnished with comfortable sleek chairs, colorful linen lamp shades and oil paintings of bistro scenes. Square white plates lend a modern crispness to the look. It's not exactly bleeding-edge interior design, but it's clean and contemporary, reflecting a $65 million transformation of 600 stores to update the 30-year-old brand.

Not to worry: The signature salad bar is still in place. But the toppings are visibly fresher, with items including mixed greens and spinach—some of which are organic—feta cheese crumbles and dried cranberries. The glumpy salad dressings—the ones with more calories than a cheeseburger—are still present and accounted for, but as part of the company's de rigueur greening campaign, the Ken's Salad Dressings are delivered to the stores in "much sleeker pouches." At $7.99, the all-you-can-eat salad bar is an appealing facet of the menu, and given what we saw on the tables, a main attraction of the restaurant at lunchtime. We also enjoyed the soup-and-salad combo with a bowl of white bean-chicken chili, textured with al dente navy beans and heavily accented with cumin. The soup was less wallpaper-pasty than we would have expected in the old days, but it was still thickened with something that kept it from tasting or feeling like homemade.

Beyond the salad bar, though, we found plenty to recommend the newly polished Ruby Tuesday. When it comes to exceeding expectations, a 15-cent-per-share quarterly earnings surprise is nothing compared to the crab cake appetizer. True to the menu's word, the pancake-size pan-seared patty was almost all lump meat and no bread crumbs, studded with bits of celery and served with a colorful but extraneous ramekin of spicy mayo. Far from the dreaded salmon-patty texture, a tiny version of this sweet and meaty crab cake makes a cameo on the trio of sliders, a.k.a. Ruby Minis, where it eclipses in flavor and texture the tiny beef and turkey burgers. If you're into crab cakes, skip the slider medley and go straight for the jumbo lump crab burger.

The revamped menu puts significant emphasis on hamburgers, with non-beef options including a chicken BLT, a turkey burger and a blackened fish sandwich. While the beef patty in the trio of minis was so thin that it cooked to a dull gray (a universal hazard with the popular slider trend), the full-size sandwiches, including the bison bacon cheeseburger and the Triple Prime burger, were excellent, cooked to a juicy medium-rare and served on toasted light wheat buns. We did not try the Ruby's Classic, made with choice beef in lieu of prime, but there's plenty of reason to expect the $5.99 burger (made with "fresh-never-frozen" meat) to be an admirable specimen.

Channeling the global-fusion-flavored eclecticism of so many casual-dining restaurant chains, Ruby Tuesday serves a pretty appetizer of fresh if somewhat bland chicken-stuffed Asian dumplings with peanut sauce, which worked well as a shared starter for a group. The so-called Thai Phoon shrimp come a dozen to a plate, lightly fried and drizzled with spicy chili mayonnaise. While the golden brown batter and the piquant emulsion drowned out the shrimp's delicate flavor, the texture bespoke of good product and gentle, well-timed cooking.

A special of Asian shrimp and salmon covered the waterfront in terms of flavors. Blackened and glazed with hints of teriyaki and a side of brown rice with diced tomatoes and shredded cheese, the Asian theme bled over into Cajun with a little Tex-Mex thrown in. But the fish was tender, and the fresh flavors and textures conspired to create a wholly unsubtle but delectable taste-a-palooza.

Chicken pot pie was a modern—almost inverted—spin on the classic, with a thick stew of chicken, broccoli, carrots, peas and celery served over a fluffy bed of puff pastry. While the meal was pretty and generous, the thick and cheesy white sauce recalled the glumpiness of Ruby Tuesday soups of yore, and the side of broccoli was so overcooked as to require minimal chewing.

Our group particularly enjoyed the Bistro Barbecue Chicken, a lightly fried breast sliced and topped with a sweet, tangy barbecue sauce, diced tomatoes, onion straws, bacon and cheddar. On the side was an obscenely rich, creamy, buttery and delicious scoop of mashed potatoes. Such an unpretentiously straightforward pile-on of winning ingredients is not exactly haute cuisine, nor can it be remotely within the nutritional bounds of what a normal human requires on a daily basis. But the corporate cooks in Maryville don't pretend to be culinary aesthetes, and Lord knows I'm not your cardiologist. So as far as I'm concerned, that Bistro Barbecue Chicken is a winning meal for 11 bucks.

Other things you might not expect include a $5 margarita made with fresh lime juice and Patrón; a roster of fresh lemonades flavored with whole fruits and juices; gregarious servers who wear pride in their job on their mod black sleeves; and a dessert list dotted with chocolate chip and macadamia nut cookies sourced locally from Christie Cookies. (Ten percent of every half-dozen or dozen cookies purchased goes to a nonprofit organization to help fight hunger.)

When it came to dessert, we got waylaid by the first item on the list: Double Chocolate Cake, which is an overly subtle pseudonym for molten chocolate cake. At one end of a white rectangular plate sat a spongy ring of cake cradling a heated core of thick dark chocolate. At the other end sat a scoop of vanilla ice cream the size of a baseball, drizzled with strawberry syrup. The extravagant pairing of chocolate and vanilla, hot and cold was straightforward, simple and successful (but we would have liked the chocolate core to be a bit more molten).

Ruby Tuesday is by no means setting a new standard for contemporary food, but the revamped nameplate has indeed reinvented itself. That's good news and bad news all in one. The good news? Things are better than you expected. The bad news? Now that expectations are raised, Wall Street analysts, food critics and hungry diners will be paying close attention.

Email cfox@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9408.

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