first thing that hits one at Ruth’s Chris (after dealing with the valet parking) is the aroma: It’s all beef and butter, and it’s fantastic. Sensory evaluation number two: the noise level— It’s the comforting buzz of a well-oiled machine, just loud enough to convey hospitality, not so loud as to make carrying on a conversation across the table a chore. Oh, maybe the lighting level verges on being too low, but that’s really only a concern at ordering time. And the service is perfectly calibrated. Our very young waitress had a deft hand with wine pouring (meaning she knew when to stop), she actually revealed the prices for each of the recited specials and was just solicitous enough — asking, for example, “As you’re sharing, would you like extra warmed plates?” (We didn’t, but thanks for asking.) The front of the house at Ruth’s Chris inspires confidence, and that would make founder Ruth Fertel very proud.
Ruth was an amazing woman. From a one-restaurant start in New Orleans, she created an empire by dint of hard work and creativity; she was responsible for many recipes as well as the design of the 1800-degree broiler ovens that “lock in the corn-fed flavor” of the chain’s signature sizzling-in-butter steaks. I met her and local partner, Lana Duke, several times during her frequent visits to San Antonio and was charmed anew on each occasion by her down-to-earth demeanor. She would still be proud, I think, of much of the food, but she also wouldn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. Dining Companion (in white knit with jet jewelry) and I were both surprised to learn that the appetizer of veal osso buco ravioli wasn’t new to the menu. “A lot of people think that, but it’s been there a long time,” said the roving manager, who put in his obligatory one-time appearance, then stayed away, just as he should have. Though the saffron in the pasta was subtle and the pasta itself on the edge of chewy, the stuffing and sauce were superlative, and the garlic-strewn spinach played perfect counterpoint.
Both the Alexander Valley chardonnay (by the glass) and a subsequent bottle of 2005 Zenato Ripassa from Italy’s Valpolicella region worked well with this chameleon-like dish. The chardonnay, however, was a soul mate to the Crabtini.
Romaine “rabbit ears” garnished the colossal lump crab served in a chilled martini glass. The glass’s contents, however, were spectacular. Short of specimens scooped up myself from the waters of Puget Sound, this was the best crab experienced in years — and best left mostly alone, as Ruth’s does, by tossing it in a very discreet amount of vinaigrette and bedding it on a Creole remoulade you may choose to incorporate or not. There was no choice about the dressing on a shared baby arugula salad, thoughtfully split for us in the kitchen and served on chilled plates. The dressing was neither warm nor very bacony — just sweet and too abundant. The once-again-popular iceberg wedge is another possibility, as is a Caesar and Ruth’s Chop Salad, featuring three greens along with a cornucopia of other ingredients. I suspect Ruth would be pleased with the way the kitchen is turning out one of its big-beef alternatives, the veal chop with sweet and hot peppers. The pepper garnish may be a little tart for most wines, but feel free to push it aside and concentrate instead on the rich and satisfying flavor of the marinated veal, carefully trimmed and perfectly cooked at just below medium. A side of impeccably prepared Lyonnaise potatoes with beautifully caramelized onions was spectacular with the colossal chop.
But in spite of lamb chops, grilled Portobello mushrooms that smack of steak in their meaty richness, and the ahi tuna stack that has pleased mightily in the past, one goes to Ruth’s place for steak. The Prime ribeye wouldn’t have passed Ruth’s muster. It was slightly overcooked for medium rare, (The bonein Cowboy Ribeye might have been a better choice here.) But it was large, meaning half went home in a classy doggy bag, and it was much better cold the next day. Reheated was the better part of an order of peas au gratin— but if anything, even better tasting in its well-seasoned sauce and cheesy topping. The Crescent City roots of Ruth’s Chris are most apparent in appetizers such as barbecued shrimp and desserts on the order of their Creole crème brûlée. Electing to continue the indulgent tone of the evening, we went straight to the chocolate chunk bread pudding — justifying the decision by convincing ourselves that the remains of the robust Ripassa would continue to work with the chocolate. And they did. But on its own, the caramel-topped pudding, containing both white and semi-sweet chocolate and chopped pecans, was in need of little else but time to savor the experience slowly
Which is exactly the attitude one needs to assume chez Ruth. You won’t be hurried by the waitstaff, so relax. And, oh, one more thing: Ruth wasn’t a formal soul, but she always looked swell. Some of you guys out there are letting your female companions down in the dress-for-the-occasion (and eating at Ruth’s is an occasion) department. I’m not suggesting coat and tie; this is San Antonio, after all, and Ruth’s certainly doesn’t require it. But a T-shirt and jeans don’t cut it either. Let’s show the lady the respect she’s due. And if you go home with a shirt or sweater smelling of beef and butter, what better way to remember the evening?
7720 Jones Maltsberger
1170 E. Commerce,
Author: Ron Bechtol
Photographer: Janet Rogers