Back when I was a kid, one of the first lessons I learned about dining out was that a steakhouse had a special aura that other restaurants simply did not possess. Even though the steakhouse of my youth was nothing more than the slap-dash faux ranch paradise known as the local Black Angus, it nonetheless taught me that a menu dominated by cuts of meat was a huge deal; one that transcended the realm of merely going out to eat, bounding fearlessly into “event” status. Indeed, everything about it, from the dark oversized booths to the beef on my plate, commanded nothing less than my utmost respect. It was the reason that whenever we went there, my shirt had to have a collar, my pants could not be even the most remote shade of blue, and sneakers were utterly out of the question. It was a sensation that I thoroughly enjoyed every time, and it’s something that I can’t quite recapture in the typically relaxed, California casual dining experience that is so prevalent these days.
And I will freely admit that the latter lament is strictly my fault, because I never sought to expand this happy feeling of reverence as an adult. For example, I had never been to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, which considering my fond steakhouse memories of yore, almost seems to be an utterly blasphemous revelation. Thankfully, my wife and I had the opportunity to correct this grievous error by dining at the Irvine location, and not only did all of those wonderful aural feelings that dwelled within me as a child came rushing back the moment I entered their lobby, that sustained throughout the course of the transcendent meal.
First thing’s first: Ruth’s Chris truly makes a seriously incredible steak (more on that later). That being said, there is so much more to their Irvine location than just a perfectly prepared cut of meat. Admittedly, from the outside, the building is not all that much to look at. However, keep in mind that we are talking about Irvine, where their definition of creativity means that you managed to paint your home in two slightly different shades of beige. Besides, Ruth’s Chris more than makes up for the blasé exterior on the inside. Quite simply, it looks like what a steakhouse should: Beautiful wood paneling all throughout; subdued earth tones that are neither too dark nor too bright; artwork that merely announces itself without calling too much attention to it. As an added touch, half of the main dining space has this gorgeously vintage curtain running along the large windows that overlook the street, giving the space a surprisingly vintage feel that further bolsters its character. The best trick the space has in its arsenal, however, is when part of the curtain is drawn back. Doing so reveals a unique street level view that includes a row of brownstone-style apartments perched atop a meticulous grassy knoll, creating a look that has a surprisingly metropolitan, anti-Irvine feel. These special elemental aspects of Ruth’s Chris made it quite easy for me to get even more amped than I already was for our steakhouse experience.
After starting said experience with a perfectly mixed sidecar – seriously, it was one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had at a restaurant – we dove into a lovely little edible concoction known as a “crabtini:” colossal lump crab meat tossed in a house vinaigrette and a Creole remoulade, smartly served in a martini glass. The vinaigrette and remoulade lovingly enveloped each bite of succulent crab, giving the starter a unique tangy quality that added depth without inhibiting the sweetness of the meat. The beautifully presented veal osso bucco ravioli we also shared had an exceptionally mild flavor, although we found ourselves working through the crabtini at a much faster pace.
For our second course, we shared the sliced tomato and onion salad, which starred an enormous beefsteak tomato attractively laid atop a bed of various lettuces and nestled below red onions, blue cheese crumbles, and vinaigrette. Now, I’m admittedly not a particularly big tomato guy, so when I first saw the sheer size of the tomato that dominated the dish, it intimidated me a little. But the tartness of the cheese and the vinaigrette blended seamlessly with the ideal sweetness of the red fruit, making the dish a refreshing treat throughout. If you are even remotely fond of tomatoes, this is a salad that you must have. However, keep the massiveness of the tomato in mind if you are planning on enjoying it solo.
While we were excited to indulge in the delights of the first two courses, neither one could come close to the hype and eager anticipation we had for the main entrée. Honestly, we had been talking about it for days, like excited movie fans buzzing about the newest summer blockbuster right before its release. We had even gone so far as to plot out which one of us was going to enjoy their famous filet, as we long heard that not ordering it the first time you go to Ruth’s Chris was the culinary equivalent of going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa. My wife agreed to take the filet plunge, leaving me with the freedom to indulge in their ribeye cut. And even with all the feverish build up that had been built up, one bite of my brilliantly tender cut of medium rare ribeye still managed to completely surpass all of that excited anticipation. It was 14 ounces of heavenly bliss – immaculately prepared, impeccably juicy, and impossibly tender. So tender, in fact, that it dissolved in my mouth with the consistency of fine butter, a phenomenon that also occurred when I snagged a bite of my wife’s filet. And unlike my better half, I ordered my steak “Oscar style,” a special accoutrement of their delicious lump crab remoulade and asparagus set atop the cut. The deep, succulent flavor of the ribeye merged with the sweetness of the crab and the crisp asparagus that left all corners of my palate aglow. And rather than smothering the entire filet with the accompaniments, they wisely only covered half of it, leaving me the option of enjoying part of my steak au natural (a choice I embraced voraciously). The seamingly endless cone of crispy shoestring fries that we ordered to go with our steaks also enhanced the magnificence of the overall experience, as we both created piles of the steak frites-style potatoes on our plates to absorb the juices from our meat. Also the additional side of creamy spinach that we ordered may be one of the most decadent vegetable-based sides I ever had.
That sense of gastronomic sin found in the spinach side carried over into the more familiar terrain of the dessert menu, where we shared two of Ruth’s Chris’ staples: The crème brulet and the bread pudding with whiskey sauce. The former was one of the lightest brulets I have enjoyed in a long time, and the latter was rich, dense, and utterly delightful, right down to the distinct whiff of whiskey goodness that emanated from the tasty glaze.
As we made our way through our fantastic meal, one motif that we constantly observed was the strong sense of teamwork that exists at Ruth’s Chris. Throughout the evening, everyone constantly executed all things great and subtle to keep the space running with clock-like precision, from the busboys lively engaging the patrons when they refilled their water to the managers helping to bus a table. It was clearly evident to us that they deeply cared about service here, and it was something that radiantly shown through with John, our fantastically congenial and knowledgeable server, as well as the gentlemen who waited on the table adjacent to ours. It truly made our already tremendous experience all the more unforgettable.
As we left that night, I couldn’t help but reflect on all the things that made me so fond of the steakhouse excursions I had growing up. Back then, every element – the cuisine, the service, the environment -- seemed deftly in place to make the encounter one that carried on for years to come. And all of these same wonderful building blocks are in place at Ruth’s Chris, with one crucial, more positive exception. Back in the day, the special aura of the steakhouse I remembered was filtered through the eyes of a child. At Ruth’s Chris, that aura was fully realized through the more discernable sensibilities of adulthood, which made the entire experience all the more exciting, and ultimately, more satisfying. It also made it an encounter that I look forward to having again very soon.
by Rich Manning