Potatoes for Meat-Eaters 

Ruth's Chris and Vic Stewart's both do good steaks, but the overall experience is very different.

Meat and potatoes. Potatoes and meat. They're not just a diet but an outlook on life.

The meat-and-potatoes type prefers beer to wine. He's more familiar with Raiders stats than restaurant openings. He's not sure he likes that Chinese food.

So when the meat-and-potatoes guy goes for a big night out, he goes to a steakhouse. There you get a mammoth cut of meat, which is listed on the menu in English, thank God. The waiter will call you a gentleman and help the lady to her seat.

That's not to knock the steakhouse. Though we've stolen most of our notions of haute cuisine from the Italians and the French, the steakhouse preserves the American tradition of elegance -- no-nonsense and abundant, perfect for the land of big shoulders and Sam Spade. Like the martini and the Thanksgiving turkey, the steakhouse transcends faddishness and irony. A good steak, simply cooked, passes muster with the Julia Childs and the Jane Does of the country, something all Americans can get behind. Unless, of course, you're a tofu-sucking hippie.

Even in the face of a national recession and a decline in the amount of beef Americans consume, steakhouses have been doing just fine. Recent articles in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Restaurant Industry have chronicled the continuing growth of steakhouse chains across the country. Last month, Fortune magazine reported that restaurateurs now have to fight over the best cuts of beef. And the Atkins diet revolution certainly hasn't hurt business.

With the disclaimer that I'm probably about as far from a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy as you can get, this week I visited two Walnut Creek steakhouses: one new (to the area), one a longtime favorite; one clings to tradition, the other isn't afraid to top its ribeye with a little something-something. Both charge the same prices as a three-course dinner at Prima or Citron.

The newest Ruth's Chris Steakhouse opened in Walnut Creek this July, and already has attracted enough business to make reservations necessary. The lispily named Ruth's Chris chain took part of its name from the late Ruth Fertel, a savvy New Orleans restaurateur who bought the Chris Steakhouse in 1965 and turned it into a local institution -- and then an international franchise of eighty-plus restaurants. Ruth's Chris stakes its claim on top-quality steaks cooked in an 1,800-degree broiler. Ruth's hefty menu includes more than steaks; there's fish and chicken too, all with just a little New Orleans flava.

Your dining experience begins when the host leads you to your seat through the maze of tables, some tucked in nooks overlooking the Broadway Plaza shopping complex, some clustered in smaller rooms. The decor is a bit shiny where it should be burnished, but it's a far cry from the stores and bars downstairs.

It's tempting to bash a big chain restaurant -- when mom and pop are sitting in the CEO's chair thousands of miles away, a few unkind words from a critic aren't going to send them to bankruptcy court -- so I'll just snipe that the service alternated between obsequious and invisible, and continue on to what Ruth's Chris does well: The beef, the beef, the beef. And the veal.

Considering that the former is your reason for going there, if you're a meat-and-potatoes gal you're unlikely to be disappointed. The portions could stuff a linebacker: Most steaks weigh 16 to 24 ounces, and are cut a good one to two inches thick. All are USDA Prime beef, wet-aged 28 days.

(I've written about this topic before, but "dry-aging," the traditional method of storing steaks unwrapped in a chilled room to break down the muscle fibers and mellow out the flavor, produces a nutty, gamy taste that foodies and your grandparents' generation prefer. "Wet-aging" a steak by sealing it in plastic while it sits also ages the meat, but keeps it from losing 30 percent or more of its weight during the process. That weight loss makes dry-aged steaks more expensive, so the vast majority of restaurants now wet-age their beef.)

There may have been just a little butter melting on top of my New York strip, but it seemed to have set the tone for the whole cut -- rich, soft but not mushy, and just the right shade of pink. Cutting into the filet mignon was like slicing through ahi tuna, so moist was it. Both steaks' juices pooled around the plate, mixing with the butter to form a succulent pan sauce. The broiler produces a light char on the meat, just blackening the edges, so you're tasting the pure flavor of the beef. I also enjoyed the veal chop with sautéed peppers -- barely more flavorful than a chicken breast, the tender meat fell apart on the fork, but its delicacy was counteracted by the short, sharp tang of marinated peppers on top.

Considering the size of the cuts, the pricing isn't bad. But not a deal, either -- you get nothing but meat on your plate ("It's 500 degrees!" warns the waiter as he sets it down). So you have to order sides.

This is where I got a little resentful. There's a whole bunch of potatoes on the menu -- mashed, fried (thick or skinny), baked, you name it. Our peas au gratin floated in a lake of cream under a thick orange slick of melted cheddar. And that was it. Creamed spinach, as much a part of the steakhouse experience as the big serrated knife, had the proper texture: Chopped spinach, simmered in heavy cream, went down like a spoonful of warm custard. If only it had been seasoned with something. Anything. Everything else we tried -- mushrooms stuffed with shredded crabmeat and then broiled (yawn); a flavorless chopped salad of lettuce, olives, eggs, onions, and cured meats -- made me start counting every dollar of our $65-a-person bill.

I spent the same amount of money at Vic Stewart's Famous for Steaks -- just on the other side of Broadway Plaza -- and walked out much happier. There's no disconnect between what Vic Stewart's says it is and what Vic Stewart's does: Western steakhouse cuisine. The building, erected in 1891, was once the Walnut Creek train station, but moved to its current location in the mid-1960s. Ten years ago this month, John Harrington and Lois Haight, his wife, took over the steakhouse that occupied it and named their new business after Harrington's grandfather (one of the founders of the Sierra Club, interestingly enough).

A multimillion-dollar restoration spotlighted the building's age, but also amped up its monied aura. The network of big and small rooms is colorfully painted -- dark red here, hunter-green there -- and paintings, candlesticks, and relics cover almost every surface. They also restored a 1905 Pullman dining car and turned it into a private dining room, long and lean. The ambience makes you sit up a little straighter and hold your fork a little tighter, but the warm, charming service will keep you at ease. And the wine list! The wine list stretches for pages upon pages, cataloguing a cellar that could dwarf my apartment.

Under chef Tyler Dwyer, Vic Stewart's menu preserves the steakhouse tradition -- large slabs of meat, expertly cooked, with all the standard accompaniments and lighter entrées and pasta to boot. There's a little of the California cuisine of Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck in the food, but equally as much of the California cuisine that existed before the Depression, Hollywood, and the '60s.

New California comes through in appetizers such as a spinach salad, restrainedly dressed in a sweet citrus-poppy-seed vinaigrette and showered with spiced, roasted walnuts. But the ranch house tradition shows up in the New York strip steak, which comes dredged in "Western spices," a subtly tingly blend of spices, before being seared so that the edges form a thick, caramelized crust. Likewise, the prime rib gets lightly smoked -- perhaps too lightly for my tastes -- before being slow-roasted, which concentrates the juices in the center of the pink, pink, pink meat. A pile of fried red onions, soaked in the juices around the plate, make a marvelous sauce. And the creamed spinach, blended with roasted garlic (new California) and aged Jack (old California), contained three times the flavor of the same dish at Ruth's Chris. We actually ate it.

Vic Stewart's beef is all Certified Angus, a branding program that ensures that all steaks are from Angus cattle, in the top grade of USDA Choice, and wet-aged for 21 days. (In the sole flaw in the otherwise spot-on service, the waiter described them as being aged fourteen days, and all but dismissed my questions about wet-aging versus dry-aging. When I mentioned this to the dining-room manager I spoke to, he was mighty nonplussed.)

Since both cook a top-notch steak, the difference between Ruth's Chris and Vic Stewart's food actually boils down to the potatoes. Au gratin, to be exact. The former drenches theirs in cream and submerges it under a lid of melted cheese. The latter carefully layers theirs with cream, garlic, and cheese; cooks them slowly until everything melts together; and cuts out a perfect circle, a warm and ever-so-unctuous potato-cheese cake. There's no comparison. Even a meat-and-potatoes guy might agree.


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