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We Meat Again

Morton's:The Steakhouse, Shops at the Esplanade, 2425 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-9577. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m. Excess on occasion is moderating. It keeps moderation from becoming a habit. --W. Somerset Maugham Ever since we Homo sapiens reared up on our hind...
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Morton's:The Steakhouse, Shops at the Esplanade, 2425 East Camelback, Phoenix, 955-9577. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Excess on occasion is moderating. It keeps moderation from becoming a habit.
--W. Somerset Maugham

Ever since we Homo sapiens reared up on our hind legs and clustered into groups, dinner has provided physical and social nourishment. Sitting down to eat, we've fed our instincts for both fuel and companionship.

Not anymore. In the 1990s, mealtime has evolved into a medical procedure, and a risky one at that. Panicked by thoughts of mortality and bombarded with insane cultural messages about food, we spend dinnertime counting every calorie, fat gram and milligram of cholesterol that passes through our lips.

These days, food is not only medically suspect, but morally suspect as well. A good meal isn't a joy to anticipate; it's a temptation to overcome. And like medieval Christian ascetics, we take perverse pleasure in punishing ourselves when our lusts inevitably betray us. Instead of whips or hairshirts, however, we mortify the flesh with some dreadful, good-for-you dinner, with salad and a low-fat dressing on the side.

In these nutritionally correct times, old-fashioned steak houses--ancient pagan temples of red meat--are downright subversive. Ironically, though, they're incredibly popular. According to restaurant-industry analysts, people feel they "deserve" an occasional slab of beef to "reward" their otherwise piously obsessive, self-denying behavior.

And that's why the high-end steak house, which features prime beef, the most expensive grade, is the hottest part of this restaurant segment. After all, the thinking goes, if you're going to jump off the nutritional pyramid, you might as well land in the most comfortable spot.

Taking advantage of America's schizoid eating habits, Morton's:The Steakhouse and Ruth's Chris Steak House have become the two biggest national players on the top-dollar steak-house scene, slugging it out in cities across America. They each boast about the quality and preparation of their prime beef. They don't talk much about price: figure about $22 to $30 for a steak, depending on the cut. That's strictly a la carte, too: These steaks are accompanied only by a knife and fork.

Ruth's Chris had the Valley's white-linen-tablecloth steak market to itself for several years, until Morton's arrived in March. Which chain is number one? I can't give a definitive answer--I've had different experiences at these restaurants in different towns. In this town, though, I'd give the nod to Morton's.

It's a bustling place, brightly lighted, with Sinatra playing subliminally low in the background. Wine lockers near the entrance hold the stock of some of this town's heaviest hitters, like the R&G's Bill Shover and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo. There are no windows to look out, but you can fix your gaze on the LeRoy Neiman paintings lining the walls or the platinum-haired trophy wives accompanying their aging, steak-loving husbands. The tables bear three Morton's trademarks: a pewter-pig lamp, a flower-filled vase and a huge steak knife that almost requires two hands to wield.

For some odd reason, Morton's dispenses with menus. Instead, the server wheels up a cart bearing the raw ingredients of just about every dish in the house. Then he launches into a numbingly descriptive, "this is a recording" spiel that will put your entire party into a glassy-eyed stupor. Needless to say, this scripted performance gets even more tiresome on subsequent visits. My favorite part of the monologue? That's when the server, pitching the potato side dishes, dramatically hoists a whole spud in the air, just in case we haven't fully grasped the potato concept.

The appetizer list is small and pricey. At almost ten bucks, the three luscious broiled sea scallops, wrapped in bacon and teamed with a spicy apricot chutney, make a bigger dent in your wallet than in your appetite. So does the small mound of lump crabmeat. If oysters turn you on, you'll probably have to be hosed down after slurping the gorgeously briny Cockenoe oysters Morton's flies in. But don't expect much from the sliced beefsteak tomato. For $5.25, the tomato should taste like it was just plucked from a New Jersey vine in July. This one didn't.

And if you don't want to shell out for appetizers, you can make do with the crusty onion bread, a loaf of no particular distinction that creates enough crumbs to support every pigeon in North America.

But Morton's isn't about bread or appetizers. It's about beef. And the beef here is good enough to make you believe in cattle worship, although not in the traditional Hindu sense.

The kitchen isn't afraid of simplicity. With top-quality beef like this, it's a virtue. Steaks are seared on the grill, popped in a broiler and seasoned only with a bit of salt.

Two of them especially stand out. If the Cattlemen's Association magazine ever decides to put out a steak centerfold, Morton's New York sirloin would be my choice for Miss May. And maybe Miss June, July and August, too. It's breathtaking, a ravishing 20-ounce strip that perfectly packages looks, taste and texture. The 24-ounce porterhouse, dripping with beefy juices, is equally heart-stopping: on one side of the bone, the flavorful sirloin; on the other side, a tender fillet soft enough to gum.

There's also nothing wrong with the thick 14-ounce filet mignon, a buttery piece of beef that you can cut with a glance. And at $19.95, the tenderloin brochette is almost a bargain: five two-ounce chunks skewered with onions, pepper, mushrooms and tomato, coated with a peppery diablo sauce and served over rice. The rib eye, however, is a comparative disappointment, falling short in both beefy wallop and juicy tenderness. Maybe that's why it's about 20 percent cheaper than the sirloin, porterhouse and filet mignon.

Be careful with side dishes. They're big enough for two people to share, and they run up the bill. My top choice would be the sauteed wild mushrooms, a fragrant blend of portabella, cremini and shiitake varieties. Crispy lyonnaise potatoes are thick with bacon and onions,but very heavy. Hash browns are all crunch, no potato, and unpleasantly oily to boot. And if you crave greenery, the steamed broccoli spears are satisfactory, as long as you don't drench them with the unimpressive hollandaise.

It's not very likely you'll be hungrily panting for the dessert tray. But Morton's does make it tempting to linger. On the heels of a big steak, the overpowering chocolate Godiva cake, a rich, moist chocolate sponge cake encasing a molten chocolate interior, will test your body's limits. An authentic New York-style cheesecake and berries in a light sabayon will send you home smiling.

One word of warning: After dinner at Morton's, do not attempt to operate heavy machinery.

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

The steaks at Ruth's Chris sure smell good. But I have no idea how they actually look. That's because management keeps this place as dark as a tunnel of love.

I don't get it. It's so dark here, you can't even read the menu: The servers, evidently prepared for customer complaints, come armed with small flashlights. Maybe some people think eating in the dark is romantic. I think it's annoying.

Gastronomically, the two operative words at Ruth's Chris are "beef" and "butter." Like Morton's, the meat is prime, the best you can get. But here, the steaks are cooked at scorchingly high temperatures, sizzled in butter. (When your steak arrives, the server asks you to raise your napkin over your shirt, so you won't be splattered with butter.)

The steaks aren't the only things drenched in butter. The mushroom-caps appetizer, thickly stuffed with crabmeat, sits in enough butter to make a Wisconsin dairy farmer stand up and cheer. Same for the five barbecued shrimp, which also benefit from a dose of Cajun spices. A serviceable Italian salad, made with iceberg lettuce, tomato, artichokes, anchovies and cheese, is a lighter way to start off.

When I'm paying more than 20 bucks for a slab of U.S.D.A. corn-fed prime beef, I don't expect any lapses. Every steak should be perfect every time. Unfortunately, our dinners turned out to be a bit more hit-and-miss.

When the kitchen staffers are paying attention, they're clearly capable of sending beef lovers to steak nirvana. That's particularly true for the T-bone, 16 ounces of animal-protein perfection that almost explodes with beefy flavor. I could literally feel my body jumping for joy with every bite. It's also true for the 14-ounce filet mignon, a meltingly tender morsel that goes down as smoothly as a '61 Lafite-Rothschild.

But someone on the line flubbed our 50-dollar, 48-ounce porterhouse for two. We asked for medium, which, according to the menu, means a pink center. Instead, we got a steak so red it must have been blushing. Now, since the kitchen trims the meat off the bone and cuts it into smaller slices, how come nobody back there noticed the discrepancy between what we ordered and what we got?

What annoyed my dining mate and me even more was that we had to eat some of this misprepared steak to discover the problem. That's because it's so dark in here that we couldn't see what we were eating. We called the server and her flashlight over to verify our suspicions of undercooking. She was properly apologetic and whisked the meat backed to the kitchen for additional treatment. But the incident left a bad taste in my mouth.

So did the rib eye steak. Because of the cavernlike darkness, my friend couldn't tell until it was too late that he was trying to chew a piece of gristle that he had cut into. After several more ineffective stabs in the dark to isolate the meat, he threw up his hands in despair.

I had the server wrap up the rib eye for home lab inspection. I found about one-third of the 16-ounce slab a mass of inedible gristle. How did this steak ever pass muster?

I've always thought Ruth's Chris' side dishes deserved star billing, and recent visits haven't changed my mind. Cottage fries come crisp and sizzling; steamed broccoli au gratin arrives draped with bubbling Cheddar cheese; lyonnaise potatoes don't stint on the fried onions; and the rich creamed spinach makes it easy to eat your vegetables.

Desserts are also effective, particularly the rich, eggy bread pudding, moistened with a potent whiskey sauce. The sweet, crunchy pecan pie is another winning option.

In all fairness, I've eaten dozens of steaks at Ruth's Chris not only without incident, but with genuine pleasure. At this point, I'm willing to believe the porterhouse and rib eye incidents were one-time aberrations, unlikely to recur. At these prices, and with Morton's as competition, they'd better be.

The Steakhouse:
Cockenoe oysters
New York sirloin
Chocolate Godiva cake

Ruth's Chris
Steak House:
Barbecued shrimp
Filet mignon
Bread pudding

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