STEAKSALL KINDS

When I walk into the elegant new Ruth's Chris Steak House in Scottsdale, I am struck by a singular thought: Scotch. An obvious case of stimulus-response, if there ever was one, for Ruth's Chris takes me back to the late Seventies, when I lived in New York and worked in advertising and took my mostly male clients to lunch at steak houses like the Palm, and Christ Cella.

In those pre-Perrier days, our on-the-company celebrations always started with cocktails and frequently ended with after-dinner drinks. Scotch was the drink of choice. In between, we'd consume salads of sliced beefsteak tomato and onion, juicy chops, tender steak, red wine, sauteed mushrooms, fried potatoes and dense cheesecake with fresh strawberries. With its cherry-wood panelling and crisp white table linens, the new Ruth's Chris evokes the memory of those New York steak houses for me. It gives me the feeling of the inner sanctums of Manhattan, but with a difference. Ruth's Chris-Scottsdale is a man's environment where women can feel comfortable. Maybe it's the walls of glass permitting fabulous views of the surrounding mountains, or the high ceilings, or the presence of women on the waitstaff. I don't know, but whatever the reason, the atmosphere at Ruth's Chris is simultaneously clubby and nonexclusive. After all, the only requirement for membership here is a certain amount of cash--or credit--and an appetite for red meat. In today's climate of radical vegetarianism and politically correct eating and drinking, just being in a roomful of admitted steak lovers can seem positively fraternal. Ah, you say to yourself as you look around, so these are the people who still eat steak.

The menu is identical to Ruth's Chris on East Camelback. No surprise there. This is, after all, a nationally franchised restaurant. Which is to say, everything is a la carte. You want a baked potato? You gotta order it. You want a salad? You gotta order it. You want a vegetable? You got it. Order it.

Some people hate this idea, but not I. I like it. I like it because I respect it as a traditional men's-steak-house kind of thing. You order what you want and you get what you order. You want broccoli? Great. But if you feel like our dear President, no one's going to force it on you. Ditto for the creamed spinach, the asparagus and the scalloped potatoes.

Of course, the reason most people dislike this kind of arrangement is that the dollars do add up quickly. Your basic sixteen-ounce steak at Ruth's Chris runs $20. Tack on $4 or so for salad, $3 for each vegetable or potato, plus drinks, dessert and coffee and you're looking at something like a C-note to cover that dinner for two.

This is not inexpensive. Which is why, I think, Ruth's Chris reminds me of the business lunches I enjoyed in New York. This is definitely the kind of place to come when somebody else, say your company, is footing the bill. Or for those times when you're craving a good steak and are willing to pay for it. Ruth's Chris may be a little pricey for the majority of us regular folk, but, frankly, it's worth every penny.

For one thing, consistency is a prime reason for staking out a table in this room with a view. When you order a steak at Ruth's Chris, you don't have to be apprehensive about quality. The restaurant serves only aged, corn-fed beef bred in the American Midwest. The meat is never frozen and is cut to order on the premises.

For another thing, portions are hefty--a fact I seem to continually forget. Everything is Bunyanesque here: the salad, the steak, the potato, even the broccoli. Value is definitely present.

On my most recent visit, my dining accomplice and I start with salads and opt to share the Porterhouse for two. Ruth's Chris' steaks are marbled with fat for juiciness and our Porterhouse is no exception. This takes some getting used to on my part: my health-conscious mama raised me on lean red meat. Though I still tend to treat fat like toxic waste, I can now enjoy what it does for meat. Our steak is succulent, though a trifle chewy at times. Side orders of baked potato, fried onion rings and asparagus with hollandaise sauce do not disappoint. Dessert is a traditional affair at Ruth's Chris. We order the bread pudding and apple pie a la mode. Of the two, I prefer the latter for its crumbly, brown-sugar topping which reminds me of Apple Betty, my favorite school cafeteria dessert. The bread pudding is moist and dense, but alas, the sauce that tops it is served scaldingly hot. Youch!

Seating in the new restaurant includes booths, tables and patio dining. Our table is inside, "by the windows," the hostess promises. Unfortunately, the windows turn out to be a glass door--the primary service exit to the patio. Every few minutes, we hear the sizzle of butter as waitpersons glide behind us with steaks stacked up on their padded arms. I'd eliminate seating at this table. No one wants to feel in the way or in danger of third-degree burns from spilled butter.

If you're like me, steak is not a weekly part of your diet. But I still like a good piece of meat every now and then, to celebrate a special occasion or satisfy a craving. Next time this happens, you'll find me at the new Ruth's Chris. It has everything I want in a steak house.

Continuing our drink analogy, if Ruth's Chris is Scotch-and-water-on-the-rocks, the Chart House is more like a pina colada.

This extremely popular McCormick Ranch restaurant lacks the visual calm of its Scottsdale Seville counterpart. Here the eye is immediately assailed by a chaotic pastiche of floral patterns. From the vibrant carpet to the Hawaiian-shirt-inspired waitstaff uniforms, the decor goes beyond busy to disorienting.

But drowning itself in tropical prints has not hurt the Chart House's business. This well-located restaurant, with a 180-degree view of a manmade lake and green fairways, is packed to capacity on the weeknight my dining accomplice and I visit. Every booth and table is full of business folk or couples on dates or families celebrating something or other. At least, I assume they're here for business or a special occasion, because the Chart House isn't cheap. Entrees start at $15.25 and work their way up to $35.95 for the double-tail Australian lobster. But included in this price is vegetable, potato and bread as well as the thirty-foot salad bar or a bowl of New England clam chowder or a salad prepared by your waitperson. The third option is probably the way to go.

We make the mistake of choosing the salad bar. Sure enough, no sooner do we queue up than gridlock develops. No wonder. I spot an artiste up ahead. She is selecting, ever so carefully, from the orange carrots, the red radishes, the green scallions. She is selecting so carefully, I'd like to strangle her. Meanwhile, the line bulges into the dining room behind us, and people grow impatient for their turn at the tongs.

And anyway, call me a snob, but there's something so declasse about salad bars. Sure, back in high school and college I thought they were pretty groovy--the concept was totally new then. Now, however, I simply find them a hassle and a turnoff. If I'm in a fine-dining setting, as the Chart House purports to be, I want to relax, not wait in lines. Just bring me a nice salad, okay? If I want an appetizer, I'll order it. But enough on that score.

It is our good fortune to have a waitress who is very attentive. She observes the salad-bar snafu and times the rest of our meal accordingly. When our entrees arrive, I am pleased. My prime rib is pink and perfect, my baked potato fluffy and steaming. My accomplice's plate of coconut shrimp is also quite attractive. Eight large fried shrimp are presented atop a bed of white, strawlike noodles on a black, shell-shaped platter. Too bad the side dish of rice pilaf looks so ordinary by comparison.

I get the feeling not too many people make it to dessert here. No big loss. The Chart House offers only three items: chocolate mousse pie, mud pie and Key lime pie. Our waitress warns us that the mud pie is big enough for two. She is right. The Chart House's version is a gargantuan concoction of coffee ice cream edged in fudge on a chocolate cookie crust, topped with whipped cream and salted crushed almonds. It reminds me of the "Mexican sundaes" of my youth in upstate New York (ice cream with chocolate sauce and peanuts). I end up taking two thirds of it home. It actually survives the trip and I eat it for brunch a few days later.

The Chart House owes much of its success to that age-old real estate formula: location, location, location. Not only is the restaurant situated in tony north Scottsdale, but it has one of the most impressive views in town. I can see why people flock here, but I don't have to join them.

Ruth's Chris Steak House, 7001 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 991-5988. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

The Chart House, 7255 McCormick Parkway, Scottsdale, 951-2550. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

anywhere

Just being in a roomful of admitted steak lovers can seem positively fraternal.

ruth chris

The restaurant serves only aged, corn-fed beef bred in the American Midwest. The meat is never frozen and is cut to order.

chart house

She is selecting, ever so carefully, from the orange carrots, the red radishes, the green scallions. I'd like to strangle her. The Chart House's mud pie is a gargantuan concoction of coffee ice cream edged in fudge on a chocolate cookie crust.

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