Give people a great steak, and they'll forgive you almost anything else. At least that seems to be true of the new Ruth's Chris in Pikesville.
It's a handsome restaurant, with a clubby decor, including lots of mahogany paneling, brass railings and Tiffany-style lamps. But instead of the hush such an atmosphere might inspire, it's full of people having a good time, with tables snuggled surprisingly close together for a restaurant where you can spend $75 a person without trying hard.
People already love this restaurant, if our experience on a weeknight is any indication. When I called to make a reservation a couple of days in advance, there was no table available at 7 p.m. And don't think everyone is on expense account here. There were little old ladies, families and guys in polo shirts, and someone was having a birthday party complete with balloons.
This surprises me, when you consider that steaks start at $23 for a petite filet and even the parsley is a la carte.
OK, that's a slight exaggeration. But parsley doesn't come with your steak -- or potatoes or salad or vegetable. Those last cost between $4 and $7 each, so you can see it gets expensive to eat here. No one seems to mind.
The kitchen starts with superb cuts of prime beef, which are cooked and served sizzling in butter on heated plates. You'll hear no complaints from me about that. What did surprise me was that the thick petite filet, butterflied so it could be cooked exactly to order, came medium rare rather than medium well-done. (Not that I'm trying to justify my daughter's order, but people who order their meat well-done really, really don't like to cut into almost purplish beef.) Our waitress was quick to take it away, but it's no fun sitting and waiting while everyone around you is either eating without you or waiting with you.
The New York strip my daughter's friend ordered, though, was a fabulous piece of beef, charred and juicy rare. Nothing is added to the steaks but melted butter, salt and pepper, and nothing is needed.
That should be true of the prime rib, which isn't on the menu but is often a special. But the prime rib doesn't have quite the beefy flavor of the steaks, so its juices had been jazzed up with something in the steak sauce family -- a mistake.
Beef isn't the only thing Ruth's Chris offers; a swordfish steak was every bit as wonderful as the prime beef. The fresh, thick chunk of flaky fish would have been out of this world if the promised garlic lemon butter sauce hadn't been instead a lake of melted butter. I'm a true butter lover, but some restraint was called for here.
At least with the swordfish you get two asparagus spears and a butterflied shrimp or two as garnish. Otherwise you'll want to add some side dishes. Our waitress recommended the garlic-scented mashed potatoes, a puffy swirl that couldn't have been better, and sauteed mushrooms, which would have been better without their melted butter bath.
We added asparagus that sported a pretty but tasteless hollandaise, and broccoli au gratin, which was so dreadful I'm surprised our otherwise fine waitress didn't warn us. You had to dredge a sludgy pile of cheese to come up with any of the vegetable.
Our first courses were less uneven. Shrimp barbecued New Orleans-style turned out to be floating in a garlic, wine and butter sauce. (Do you sense a butter theme here?) I was happy with them, although they could have been cooked a little less.
Our friend from Florida brightened when he heard that a special that night was stone crab claws from Joe's, a shrine for crab lovers there. Even the mustard mayonnaise was from Joe's recipe. The four huge claws were meaty and flavorful, but I wouldn't order them over blue crab. I freely admit I'm prejudiced.
We got a chance to compare with another special appetizer, large lumps of crab meat draped with strips of roasted red pepper and flanked with two sauces, remoulade and cocktail. The combination of tastes was fabulous.
We also tried the Cuban black bean soup. (Other choices were seafood gumbo and onion soup.) This was a quiet soup, with subtle flavor and chunks of tomatoes and onions cooked in.
Ruth's Chris realizes that once you've had a pound of steak sizzling in a pound of butter, what the heck. You might as well indulge in warm bread pudding with bittersweet chocolate chips or a perfectly executed creme brulee. If you want something a little less sinful, the Key lime pie is authentic and refreshing, and mixed berries with silky creme anglaise is just about a perfect ending.
Food: ** 1/2
Where: 1777 Reisterstown Road
Hours: Open every night for dinner, Friday only for lunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$11.95; main courses, $17.95-$31.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *