When the service makes the meal

by Brian Clarey

The stock market is crashing; the credit market is knotted up like a 60-car wreck on a superhighway; job losses mount; the dollar continues to weaken. And here I am, sitting next to a sumptuous blonde by candlelight, drinking a martini and eating a $40 steak. It’s an Emperor Nero moment. But you need not have the world crashing down around you to have a great dinner at a joint like Ruth’s Chris Steak House. If you’re like me, all you need is a gift card, a babysitter and a hot date. And if you want to forget that the sky is falling, Ruth’s Chris is indeed the place. Like much of American culinary history, the story of Ruth’s Chris begins in New Orleans, on the corner of Broad and Ursulines streets in Mid-City, where Chris Steak House opened in 1927, the same day, incidentally, that Ruth Udstad was born in the city. The steak house flourished, and Ruth grew up, went to LSU, got married and had a family. But in 1965 Ruth found herself divorced and short of income. She mortgaged her home and purchased the Chris Steak House for $18,000. In 1976, after Hurricane Betsy and a restaurant fire, Ruth and a partner opened a new franchise, Ruth’s Chris Steak House on Airline Highway in Metairie, just outside the city limits. It still stands today, along with restaurants in 29 other states, Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. In the pantheon of luxury steak houses, Ruth’s Chris remains at or near the top — not just because of its food, which is excellent, but because of its style of pampering service that remains a hallmark of the brand. Yes, we’re talking white-linen, French-style service of the kind that dictates serving plates from the left and removing them from the right, constant utensil maintenance, the employment of crumbers to keep a clean tabletop. The impetus for this kind of service is the anticipation of the customer’s needs, and when done right, it makes a wonderful dinner even better. Before being shown to our table the hostess took notice of my dinner date’s little black dress and switched her white napkin out with a black one to prevent a dusting of lint on her hem. Our waiter, fluent in the nuances of the menu, shook our martinis tableside before pouring them off. The floor manager made two trips to our table before we had finished our entr’es. The bartender offered me a sip of water when I ducked into his chambers for a smoke. That’s what I’m talking about. I suppose I should say a few words about the food. Ruth’s Chris uses USDA Prime beef for most of its cuts — the filet mignon is corn fed and of Midwestern origin. The steaks are seared in an 1,800-degree oven from top and bottom, served sizzling in a pool of butter. “Our steaks are served on plates that are five-hundred degrees,” our waiter said. “It keeps your meal nice and hot, and it makes a nice little sauce on the plate with the butter. It will also burn your hand if you touch it.” As he served the steak — a fantastic NY strip — he advised me to protect my clothes from the spatter with my napkin. My companion, a fish-head vegetarian, settled on a grilled Portobello plate — priced significantly lower than the grilled meats — that elicited yummy sounds from her quarter of the table. The menu is fairly expansive for a high-end joint, centered mainly on steaks but with something for everyone: lobster, fish, lamb, vegetarian dishes and a slew of traditional appetizers that includes one of my favorite New Orleans dishes, barbecued shrimp, which is not at all what it sounds like. There is also a well-regarded list of sides, served family style, the most famous of which is the creamed spinach, one of the finest examples of the dish I have ever tasted. The Lyonnaise potatoes, flash-fried and served with saut’ed onions, were particularly delicious and paired magnificently with the strip. But my meal was all about the steak, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and infused with butter. The strip, not normally the most tender of steaks, yielded to the knife easily and gave off such a satisfying taste that those first few moments I spent with it were in silence as I leaned back in my chair and chewed as slowly as my taste buds would allow.

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