Adding sizzle to city dining

New Ruth's Chris beefs up number of steakhouses

Sunday Gourmet

July 31, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

No, not every restaurant in downtown Baltimore is a steakhouse or turning into a steakhouse. It just seems that way. I was sorry to see Eurasian Harbor go, to be replaced by a Ruth's Chris. I liked the former's offbeat combination of Asian dishes, a fine wine list and killer desserts.

But if we have to have another steakhouse, let it be a good one. And this Ruth's Chris -- Steve de Castro's fourth in the Baltimore-Annapolis area -- is.

I know I cut upscale steakhouses very little slack because they charge an awful lot of money for food that I can reproduce at home. If they don't get it right, I get grumpy. This is still a restaurant I would go to only if someone else was paying, but in my limited experience of Ruth's Chris Steak Houses, this is the best one I've been to.

I used to regret the fact that people don't dress up to go to Ruth's Chris. Polo shirts are about as fancy as a lot of customers get. But I now realize that this is the key to the chain's success: Americans are happy to spend an extravagant amount of money to eat out, but many of them don't want to spend it on unfamiliar dishes. They want comfortable food, comfortable surroundings, good-natured waiters -- and they want to eat in their tennis shoes if they feel like it. This is Big Steak luxury.

All traces of Eurasian Harbor that I remember have disappeared except for the open kitchen. The ample tables are placed a comfortable (there's that word again) distance apart. The dining room's predominant color is red, with handsome dark-wood accents. There are white tablecloths and lots of fabric to absorb noise. The service is attentive, and our waiter so likable we want to tip big so he'll like us back.

Although I had heard that some of Eurasian Harbor's most popular dishes would be offered as specials, the only sign of this we see are the daikon radish shavings on a scallop appetizer. Four ivory sea scallops perch on a fresh-tasting, subtle pesto. The appetizer is beautifully done and just about the most complicated dish offered. Otherwise the food is classic Ruth's Chris, which these days means not just beef but also seafood.

This may be heresy, but if I went again I'd stick to the seafood. The special of the day starts with two pieces of pristinely fresh swordfish, thick and meaty -- done through but still moist. One jaunty shrimp sits on top, and two tender asparagus spears flank it. The fish is delicately bathed in lemon butter.

Compare that with the petite filet, which is everything the menu promised: tender, rosy-centered and sizzling in butter. But it does look lonely on its oval white plate without so much as a sprig of parsley. (Not that you could put a sprig of parsley on this blazing-hot plate. It would wilt.)

A well-marbled rib-eye has more flavor than the filet and deliciously crisp edges of guilt-inducing fat, but its presentation, too, is a bit stark. Of course, with any of the steaks you could get an "entree complement" such as a pepper sauce ($2.95) or two jumbo lump crab cakes ($16.95). This is not a joke.

With any of the entrees you will want to order one of the eight kinds of potatoes and a vegetable (all a la carte). We settle on creamed spinach and smooth mashed potatoes with just a whisper of garlic. Each is enough to feed the whole table. What I like about these -- and for that matter, the beef and seafood as well -- is that they haven't been oversalted, so the flavors of the ingredients shine through.

A few of the items on the menu are starred. These originated in the first Ruth's Chris in New Orleans. Finely chopped lettuce, for instance, is tossed with chopped olives, red onions, blue cheese, bacon, chopped egg, hearts of palm and mushrooms, dressed with a vinaigrette, then molded into a neat cylinder. Yes, Ruth's Chop Salad is complicated, and each bite offers up a different taste sensation. The jury is still out on it, as far as I'm concerned. But the salad looks great, placed on a square black plate with a nest of fried onions on top and cherry tomatoes around its edges.

Baltimoreans may be surprised that the barbecued shrimp, another starred appetizer, come in a sauce of butter, white wine, garlic and herbs -- not the spicy red stuff. Forget the name and enjoy them for what they are.

Ruth's Chris knows that once you've consumed a pound of steak with mashed potatoes and creamed spinach, you're ready for anything -- or at least a heavy, caloric dessert. The dessert menu offers today's standards: cheesecake, chocolate sin cake and creme brulee. But I recommend the individual apple tart with a streusel topping; thick, flaky pastry; and vanilla bean ice cream. It's made with Granny Smith apples so the filling has a pleasant tartness. Or the white chocolate cream pie with cara-melized banana slices on top. Or my favorite, the simple bread pudding with a heady whiskey sauce. You don't get those three every day.

If we had to lose Eurasian Harbor, I'm glad its replacement does what it does well. I'm not sure when Baltimore will reach its saturation point with steakhouses, but it's clearly not yet. Ruth's Chris was hopping the week night we were there.

Ruth's Chris Steak House

Food: *** (3 stars)

Service: *** (3 stars)

Atmosphere: *** (3 stars)

Where: Pier V Hotel, 711 Eastern Ave., Inner Harbor

Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, dinner nightly

Prices: Appetizers, $6.95-$16.95; entrees, $18.95-$53.90

Call: 410-230-0033

Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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