The food, however, was disappointing. Steaks were overcooked, steaks were undercooked, food was greasy, food was dry. And it was then, as it is now, expensive.
When I reported my findings, the founder and owner, Ruth Fertel, was furious. She took out a half-page ad disputing my review and touting the restaurant’s emphasis on quality. In the meantime, she dispatched her “kitchen Gestapo,” a term used by her publicist, from the headquarters near New Orleans to the Orlando restaurant where they found the ovens had not been properly calibrated, which explained the miscooked steaks.
Things got better, though to my mind never good enough to be considered the best steakhouse in the area. The original Central Florida location closed in the summer of ’99 and later that year a new Ruth’s Chris opened in Winter Park Village. A couple of years after that a second area Ruth’s opened on the nascent Restaurant Row.
Then, following the devastation of hurricane Katrina to the New Orleans area, Ruth’s Chris Steak House corporation moved its headquarters to Lake Mary (although the company’s Web site says it lives in Orlando). And not far from the home office, a newly built flagship restaurant has opened. It’s a large building, sufficiently upscale though devoid of the usual steakhouse trappings of dark woods and red carpets. The main dining room has a high, rounded ceiling that has the effect of being inside a Quonset hut. Along the sides of the room are cubby-hole booths scalloped into the walls. The décor has a post-modern feel.
I wonder what Ruth would think.
Fertel died in 2002, and in August of 2005, just two weeks before the storm, Ruth’s Chris became a publicly traded company on NASDAQ. It seems the staff has the concerns of the shareholders in mind. A meal at Ruth’s has always been an expensive proposition, but my recent experiences at the Lake Mary restaurant were clouded by instances of strong-arm sales tactics obviously designed to increase the company’s bottom line.
For example, on my first visit my party of six had no sooner been seated than a young woman appeared tableside holding two large bottles. She announced that we had a choice between sparkling water and still, and then without so much as taking a breath she said she would start with the ladies and asked one of my guests which one she preferred. I intervened – it turns out we also had the choice of tap water.
A few minutes later I ordered an array of appetizers for the table. The waiter congratulated me on my choices but said I had failed to order his favorite, the calamari, which he proceeded to describe in detail. When he was finished, he asked if I wanted to amend my order to include the squid. I didn’t anticipate him joining our group, so I didn’t find it necessary to order his favorite appetizer.
Instead, we made do with “osso buco” ravioli ($11.95), crab cakes ($17.95), shrimp remoulade ($14.95) and barbecue shrimp ($11.50). The ravioli were wonderful, saffron-infused pasta pillows filled with a creamy blend of veal and mozzarella. And both shrimp dishes were good, based on large, firm yet tender shrimp. But the crab cakes, at nearly nine bucks, each a disappointment.
I did order the calamari ($12.95) on another visit just to see how fabulous it might be. It wasn’t. The fried squid were doused with a sweetish Thai chili sauce that rendered the breading a soggy mess.
Whoever is in charge of cooking the steaks in Ruth’s newest kitchen, he or she must have a special affinity for New York strip ($37.95). On both visits those cuts were cooked perfectly, and the meat showed itself to be of such quality as to warrant the cost. The person trimming the meat, however, needs to do a better job. The second steak had a gristly tail of fat that really should have been cut off prior to cooking.
Ribeye ($35.95) was another good cut, a beautifully juicy and well-marbled piece of meat. But something was terribly wrong with my t-bone ($44.95). Although it was cooked to the requested medium-rare, it tasted as though it had been seasoned with lighter fluid.
One of my guests had the lobster tail ($38.95), a laughably small sliver of otherwise sweet meat. And the lamb chops ($36.95) had a delightful gaminess that is all too often missing from domesticated lamb. The veal chop ($30.95), a milky textured and juicy cut grilled and topped with sweet peppers, did not fail to satisfy.
But a fish selection of halibut ($34.95) topped with garlic bread crumbs had to be sent back to the kitchen because it was undercooked.
Desserts were hit and miss. Banana cream pie ($7.70) seemed as though something was missing, but bread pudding ($7.45), a perfectly custardized slice topped with a sweet whiskey sauce, hit all the right notes.
On the visit with the miscooked fish, the manager appeared to give his apology and offer to remove the cost of both entrees from the check. Had the critic been spotted? Perhaps, but the level of training and customer service at Ruth’s has always been such that I would like to think the same would have been done for any guest. And that’s what makes the attempts to “upsell” – a word one of my waiters actually used – all the more galling. Most people come here for a special occasion, and they know they’ll spend a lot of money. It shouldn’t be necessary to squeeze them for more.