published Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Bring backup credit card for marvelous meal at Ruth's Chris

Ribeye Oscar is topped with asparagus, crab and béarnaise sauce.
Ribeye Oscar is topped with asparagus, crab and béarnaise sauce.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

Where: Ruth's Chris Steak House, 2321 Lifestyle Way (at Embassy Suites)

Phone: 423-602-5900

Website: www.ruthschris.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (lunch); 3-10 p.m. (dinner)

Price range: $7.50 (Steak House Salad)-$84 (T-bone with lobster tail)

Many true steak lovers grill their own meat. A few bucks worth of charcoal, a beer in the hand and an afternoon breeze offer the beef connoisseur full control over his dining experience, without the risk of overdone, tough or otherwise ruined meat marring the evening.

Taking a chance on an untested steakhouse isn't just a financial risk. When great expectations for a steak dinner come crashing down due to a lazy chef or inadequate service, the emotional roller coaster can turn a pleasurable porterhouse into what feels like a miserable meatloaf.

But Ruth's Chris Steak House offers itself as an oasis of steak excellence. Chattanooga's newest steakhouse comes from a line of restaurants widely considered to be among the best places to get a steak anywhere in the world. Ruth's Chris' marketing department does nothing to dispel that rumor, playing up the restaurants' tender, juicy and sizzling steaks -- they literally arrive sizzling -- that are seared perfectly every time.

THE MENU

They'd better be perfect every time. At $40 for a filet, $50 for a cowboy rib-eye and $44 for a New York strip, this meat isn't cheap. For those who like to share, an $87 porterhouse is available.

Each USDA Prime steak, not to be confused with lesser USDA Choice or Select steaks served up at more economical restaurants, is broiled at 1,800 degrees, served on a 500-degree heated plate and topped with a pat of butter that audibly sizzles as it melts on the meat.

In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a decent cut of steak that isn't represented here. Try a T-bone for $52, or mix it up with the tournedos and shrimp ($39) if you can't decide. Add $15 if you want that steak Oscar -- topped with asparagus, crab and béarnaise sauce -- and $32 if you want to add a fluffy lobster tail from the live tank at the entrance.

But not every guest is a meat-and-potatoes person, and the seafood lover is well-served here, too. In addition to the 2.5-plus-pound fresh lobster that's available at market price, the salmon fillet ($29), sizzling blue crab cakes appetizer ($18) and barbecued shrimp ($14) give the kitchen a chance to show off a little bit.

Save room for dessert. A warm apple crumb tart ($9) offers Granny Smith apples in a flaky pastry with streusel crust and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, while the classic créme brulée ($9) is topped with fresh berries.

THE ORDER

Ogling the menu as sizzling plates are brought from the kitchen into the dining room is an experience unto itself.

But can the food keep up with the hype? In many ways, it does.

The seared ahi tuna ($14) tasted like it jumped straight out of the ocean and into my mouth, assisted on its way by a subtle ginger-mustard sauce and sprigs of greens that tasted like the food version of "La Primavera" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.

Three sizzling jumbo scallops ($17), each the size of a toddler's fist, were a light, delightful treat. Every scallop was seared perfectly and drizzled with an enticing red sauce. These were nothing like the rubbery, heavy, fishy scallops that occasionally rear their ugly head at less reputable institutions. This was the type of sensational scallop that you feed to people who say they don't like seafood, because it will flip their world upside down.

The medium-rare rib-eye ($43) was absolutely delicious. Cooked to perfection and encrusted with blue cheese ($4 extra), its first sizzling bite filled my mouth with a boisterous sort of happiness that can only come from eating a seared piece of USDA Prime beef.

But the 500-degree plate continued to cook the rib-eye as I ate it, turning my medium-rare steak into a medium before I even got halfway through. The precious marbling simply couldn't hold up to the high heat of Ruth's Chris' broiler.

If there's something that defines the steak experience for those who love the pure taste of expertly prepared meat, it's the filet. Even unadorned by excessive sauces and marinades, a well-prepared filet generates its own flavor that rises above anything sold in a bottle.

The Ruth's Chris filet is the platinum standard to which all other steaks would aspire if they were capable of such a thought. The searing process and 1,800-degree broil creates a hard candy shell, beneath which the tender, interior juices are trapped as the filet cooks. The startling contrast between crispy and tender in every bite is something that's very difficult to achieve on your own without a custom oven like the one at Ruth's Chris.

But don't forget about the lobster tail that's so fresh, its former owner likely winked at you when you came in the door. Ours was slightly overcooked, though by no means ruined, and the complementary aroma itself was easily worth $5.

THE SERVICE

The most often heard complaint among diners at many restaurants is that their water glass is left unfilled for an unacceptable length of time. Trapped behind a booth with nothing to drink, guests seethe in silence as unquenched thirsts reach a furious crescendo.

Ruth's Chris has got you covered. A special server visited our table a half-dozen times for no other reason than to fill our water glass and inquire if we'd care for any additional fresh-baked bread. Spoiler alert: we did.

Kitchen staff didn't have to ask which guest was to receive which meal, and they delivered each dish with what was most likely a legally mandated warning about the plate's scorching temperature.

Things moved along quickly, with inquiries about dessert, cocktails and coffee coming at the right times during the meal.

THE SPACE

Ruth's Chris makes no bones about the fact that it's a steakhouse. Stacked stone walls and wood beams are everywhere. Even the bar makes use of massive wooden panels that conceal the restaurant's supply of booze.

But there's also a glass and metal accented side to this steakhouse, as well as interesting jungle-inspired surfaces on walls and chairs. Artwork draws the eye but doesn't turn the stomach.

Outdoor patios offer seating for guests more interested in cocktails than fine dining, and larger rooms are available for rent for groups of around 50. It's not the Taj Mahal, but it still feels like a special, upscale place.

THE VERDICT

Like a good steak, I love Ruth's Chris but it's got to remain fairly rare.

Everything was well prepared, served with panache and tasted delicious. The space was enjoyable, the staff was uplifting and the food was a revelation. The seafood, especially, was astonishing considering how far Chattanooga is located from the nearest ocean.

But with two cocktails and an average tip, it's difficult to escape for less than $200. Add dessert, a bottle of wine and a cup of coffee, and you could find yourself paying $300 all-in.

The lunch menu ratchets down the cost factor, with the seared tuna falling by $2 and the filet coming down in cost by $6, but for most middle-class diners, it's still a special-occasion or business-lunch destination.

And yet, something tells me Chattanooga's true steak lovers will begin finding excuses to leave the lighter fluid in the garage, hang up the tongs and head out to Ruth's Chris for a perfectly cooked filet. Just bring a backup credit card.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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