Ruth's Chris Steak House
Just like Dubai
by M.B. Lewis
From the September, 2015 issue
In my first visit to Ann Arbor's new Ruth's Chris Steak House, our foursome meandered past a stylized portrait of Marilyn Monroe into an elegantly appointed dining room. As we settled into our seats of reptilian-style leather amid aromas of roasting meat and garlic, the hostess made a move I'd never seen before: she lifted away the folded white linen napkins from in front of us and, using tongs, set down folded black ones as replacements.
"Dark slacks," she said with a nod to my friend, who half-stood for confirmation. "You don't want lint," she explained, and, with a final "no-no" head shake, whisked the untouched napkins away.
Before Ruth's Chris opened, general manager Rohit Mehra promised the chain would bring a new level of service to town. Now I'd just seen that in action--and also got the impression that greater things were expected of our post-meal agenda than going home to sit on the couch and watch the Tigers lose.
Possibly such trappings of luxury dining say more about the clientele frequenting the 140-some Ruth's Chris locations around the world for business meals and special-occasion celebrations than it does about any unmet needs in Ann Arbor. In further conversations with staffers, we learned that all recipes come from an approved company recipe library, ensuring that ordering chopped salad and a cowboy ribeye will bring the same meal as the customer had in Chicago or Dubai. No one is to be disappointed.
Local vendors for fresh produce and bread are permitted. Marilyn shares wall space with local art, and Michigan sports inspired the names on its private dining rooms. So Ruth's Chris is trying to brand townie too. But will Ann Arbor generate sufficient high-end traffic to make the global formula work here? Are the investors behind this Ruth's Chris franchise going to be congratulated for gambling on fancy downtown meeting rooms a block from the library lot, where a hotel-convention center has been long discussed? My two visits--accruing a
$480 tab (with drinks), the highest I've ever submitted for reimbursement from the editor--focused on the famed fare and how it's served up. But the big business questions were always in the back of my mind.
When our lead server found out it was our first visit to a Ruth's Chris (key the surprise and subtext, "How could you have lived this long without us?"), she launched into the story behind the odd name. The short version is that in 1965 founder Ruth Fertel mortgaged her home to buy "Chris Steakhouse" in New Orleans, signaling possession for posterity by prefacing the name with a possessive: Ruth's.
Knowing we'd be having steak for our main course, we zoomed to the seafood for appetizers. Calamari is a bellwether choice in my dining expeditions, and Ruth's Chris has a top-tier presentation, more rings than tentacles, flash-fried crispy outside yet still tender inside, with a lightly spicy sweet Asian sauce. Menu items in red ink indicate "Ruth's favorite" option in each category, so we went for her crab cakes, which delivered with big lumps of blue crab, complemented simply with butter and a hint of lemon. High quality, if a bit bland. But then, tastes have changed since Ruth passed away in 2002.
Arugula and a few other field greens were nice surprises in Ruth's interpretation of classic steakhouse wedge salad, which came with a generous amount of bacon and a baseball-sized helping of creamy, barely veined blue cheese. It was enough to share, and on request was expertly separated onto two plates at an impromptu serving station tableside. A half-dozen other salad options range from Ruth's favorite tomato and onion to the complex harvest combo that tops salad greens with cherries, roasted corn, bacon, goat cheese, and Cajun pecans.
A well-thought-out wine list centers on good California reds to accompany the beef at center stage. Those grain-fed U.S. prime-grade steaks are broiled in an 1,800-degree oven and served at your table on 500-degree china plates in a pool of butter that continues to sizzle for about two minutes. I cut my bright-pink ribeye and watched the color fade after only a few seconds on the side that touched the bubbling butter. Impressive, yes, and the flavor of the meat was certainly more complex than in the filet a friend ordered without the butter. Additional toppings include shrimp, blue cheese crust, au poivre, or Oscar style (Ruth's favorite) with crab, asparagus, and bearnaise sauce.
Richness, especially buttery richness, characterized several sides as well. Spinach au gratin seemed to be made up less of spinach than of the creamy sauce in which it was suspended. And there was a hefty layer of baked cheese atop. Our server had advised us it was more than enough for one person--no kidding, since all four at our table had heaping spoonfuls and still had more than half left to take home in our stack of company-branded plastic containers in large branded bags.
Another companion ventured beyond steak to sample a serving of hearty lamb chops, well cooked on the outside but still tender inside and delicious all through. Large sauteed button mushrooms were a delectable side dish choice, served with a full-bodied and buttery au jus. Shoestring fries--the size we used to call potato sticks--were crispy and good, but come in a napkin-lined tall cone that's hard to converse around. The other potato dishes sounded too rich for our summer excursions, better suited for winter or fall.
The lobster mac and cheese listed as a "Chef's Feature" side dish could have passed for a main dish for two or more in my house. I liked its enchilada-like creamy mild green chili sauce, and there were good-sized chunks of lobster aplenty. Unfortunately, some had baked just beyond succulent. Still, even though it's not the best-ever iteration of lobster mac, it seemed a good value for $19.
While this is a menu suited to expense accounts, not everyone is going to Ruth's Chris on someone else's dime, so I looked into the advertised "Fourth Avenue Happy Hour" bar specials as a lower-cost entry point. Starting in August, the restaurant expanded its happy hours, and the list of six $9 items is now available every day in the lounge at off-peak times: from opening to 6 p.m. and from 9 until closing. Sure enough, when I visited on a Tuesday, the bar's red-leather seats were comfortably occupied. I liked the big beautiful window looking out on Fourth Ave. (and the bus stops across the street), and the happy hour menu yielded pleasant surprises. You can get the great calamari for seven dollars less than in the dining room, for example.
We went for a steak sandwich on a garlicky toasted roll that came with great fries (heftier ones this time, served on a plate). The honey-soy sauced tenderloin skewers did not disappoint, cooked sweetly crispy one side, lightly done on the other, and nearly rare inside. The point behind the very high heat broiling was starting to make itself clear. The meat was served on a lightly wilted salad of spring greens and caramelized onions. Mushrooms on a skewer were fine but not as flavorful as the sauteed ones we had in the dining room.
Talking to bar staff revealed that the drink makers enjoy a far greater level of freedom for local customization than the food department. In addition to major Michigan beers in bottles, the stock of spirits included the trendy-in-Brooklyn, hard-to-find small-batch "Jura" scotch, and an unusual artisanal botanical choice among the gins. Keeping with the botanical theme, I ordered their "Royal Street" gin and tonic spiked with ginger and garnished with a sprig of rosemary and five floating red peppercorns--as beautiful as it was refreshing and discounted by a third for happy hour.
The fun wound down easily with good coffee and a fine berry-decked creme brulee that was plenty for two to share.
Ruth's Chris style of cooking is not something I would want to subject my budget or coronary arteries to very often, but I can see why it has been successful and will suggest it on special occasions. I can imagine fraternity/sorority types seeking a brand-name splurge ending up here, either as couples or on their parents' tab, as well as townies who need a pick-me-up. But its core business seems likely to be those out to impress a date or woo a business prospect. Even the high-ceilinged and high-tech women's room carries through on the theme of opulence.
The arrival of Ruth's Chris Steak House has generated discussion, online and off, comparing the newcomer to other local steakhouses and top-dollar restaurants downtown, with pros and cons listed in every direction. To each his or her own. It rounds out the city's offerings with a big brand name and gives us another opportunity to follow our hearts' and palates' desires--and test our wallets' capacity.
Ruth's Chris Steak House
314 S. Fourth Ave.
Mon.-Sat. 4:30 p.m.-midnight (kitchen closes at 10 p.m., bar food till 11 p.m.), Sunday 4-10 p.m.
Appetizers $15-$20; salads and sides $9-$11.50; steaks and chops $41-$50; other entrees $21-$32; desserts $6-$10
Wheelchair friendly (first floor only)
[Originally published in September, 2015.]
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