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Steaking Out the Southland

June 29, 1997|Charles Perry

Forty or 50 years back, the ideal southland dinner might have been steak, Caesar salad and a martini--the vermouth administered with an eyedropper, natch. Then the gourmet revolution changed all that. Not for most people, mind you, but seared tuna, mesclun salad and Chardonnay certainly triumphed in the foodie circles where I was condemned to travel. When I joined a beefsteak-eating club 10 years ago, I felt defiantly declasse.

That, of course, was before the retro craze. These days, the Caesar salad is the most popular salad in the country again, and guess what? Foodies have made their peace with it. Now the martini is on the comeback trail, and the trendmongers will see its merits, too. Mark my words.

But steak. Now that's still a problem. What can you say about it? foodies complain; it's just a cut of meat. (Funny, they never had a problem with sashimi.) Well, what you can say is this: Like a real martini and a real Caesar, steak is simple and classical--that's why it's enshrined in the pantheon of all-time great all-American tastes.

And steak is definitely back. According to restaurant trade journals, steakhouses have become the fastest-growing segment of upscale dining. The star of the phenomenon is Ruth's Chris Steak House, a New Orleans-based chain that has 58 locations, the latest being 3 months old in Irvine.

This particular one is somewhat odd, however. Orange County, Southern California's party county, likes its restaurants to have grand, extravagant architecture and decor, but the Irvine Ruth's Chris is on the understated side. The ceilings are high, the windows have tall green drapes (though the only view is of the traffic on Michelson Drive) and there's a massive column in the middle of the maple-paneled main dining room, but that's about it. The only eye-catcher is a long lobster tank by the door where you can watch crustaceans with rubber bands around their claws dog-piling on one another, devil take the smallest.

Furthermore, this Ruth's Chris is in an uncharacteristically prosaic setting, a sprawling complex of franchise businesses bounded by Michelson Drive, Jamboree Road and the Santa Ana Freeway; look for it behind a California Pizza Kitchen. Still, no matter where a Ruth's Chris is, it serves the same livin' large steakhouse food, and Orange County has taken this steak palace to its heart. Though it seats 210, reservations are a good idea.

There are touches of New Orleans in the appetizers: a mild but authentic seafood gumbo with lots of file in it, plus what they call barbecued shrimp down in the Crescent City, sauteed with a lot of butter and garlic with a whisper of hot pepper. The shrimp remoulade doesn't use the Creole remoulade sauce you usually run into in New Orleans restaurants, an impressive seafood cocktail sauce with minced parsley and whole-seed mustard, but instead uses a merely pleasant mustardy cream sauce. (There is a shrimp cocktail with a good, concentrated cocktail sauce.)

Onion rings are treated as an appetizer here, and they are probably the crunchiest, least limp onion rings you've ever had. You could roll them across the table like hoops. Salads include (you bet!) a Caesar made of the inner leaves of romaine and without anchovies, just like Caesar Cardini's original 1920s version.

The steaks are serious ones, at serious prices: $19 to $29 a la carte. They're all U.S. Prime beef, cooked at 1,700-1,800 degrees and brushed with a little butter before serving. You can ask for any of six degrees of doneness, explained by a prominent chart on the menu. The filet is very tender; the rib eye, flavorful; the huge T-bone, the essence of beef. The New York strip has its partisans, though I think it's neither

as tender nor as flavorful as the others, but it would still rank as a very good steak at most other restaurants. There's also a perfectly OK veal chop that pales in comparison.

The fish of the day can be ordered blackened, and the fish comes out wonderfully spicy and cooked a point. The lobsters weigh from 2 to 5 pounds (you might want to ask the weight and price per pound before ordering) and are served with drawn butter. A grilled chicken breast is available, though it's hard to imagine anybody coming here for chicken, and my waitress diplomatically confided that it was not her favorite.

The side dishes each add an average of $5 to your bill. They include wonderful buttery, faintly sweet garlic mashed potatoes, one-pound baked potatoes, not terribly cheesy potatoes au gratin and the rare luxury of fresh shoestring fried potatoes, a veritable haystack of crunchy potato strings. The spinach salad is excessively sweet, but the other non-potato sides are great. The creamed spinach is rich and buttery; the asparagus and broccoli, generously portioned.

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