Tender Is the Bite

Not long ago I called Ruth's Chris Steak House and asked for directions to its new location in Coral Gables. It was a Tuesday evening, South Florida hadn't yet been overwhelmed by high-season tourists, and I assumed dinner reservations would not be necessary. So I was not prepared when the charming host asked for my name. I panicked. Using my true name was not an option, but I hadn't given thought to an alternative. Don't say Smith, I warned myself, realizing how ridiculously fake that would sound. But then I heard myself uttering something that sounded equally phony. "Jones," I blurted. "Yes, J-o-n-e-s. Nine o'clock. That would be great. Thanks."

Well, wouldn't it be my luck that the one time I choose a stupidly cliché fictitious name to reserve a table it's at one of the few restaurants in Miami where the service is utterly proper. From the moment we entered the stunning newly renovated building flanked by towering palms, just off Le Jeune Road, we were addressed by name. We were led through the surprisingly crowded dining room to the bar, and my husband and I again heard, "Thank you, Mr. Jones. Your table will be ready in just a moment." Then we were handed off to a waiter, who kept up the Jones routine throughout the meal.

Although it may sound as if they were overdoing it, the staff somehow managed to coddle without fawning. And despite the formality, the experience at Ruth's Chris is far from stuffy. Perhaps it's the young and playful waiters (ours provided baseball scores and jokes), or the fact that they serve French fries cut in four different widths. Yet the décor -- Italian marble, plush drapery, custom cherry cabinetry -- is utterly elegant.


Ruth's Chris Steak House

2320 Salzedo St, Coral Gables; 305-461-8360.

Open daily for dinner, Sunday through Thursday 5:00 to 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:00 to 11:00 p.m. Starting December 6, lunch will be served daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

The menu is fancy as well, featuring eight different cuts of beef, lamb, chicken, steamed Maine lobster, and fish, plus a range of classic steak-house sides and starters. Like most high-priced meateries in town, all dishes are priced à la carte, making it easy to rack up a pretty hefty bill without really trying.

We came for steak, and so skipped many of the fillers to get to the main attraction, though we did allow a decent-size caesar salad ($5.95) and irresistible warm, fresh rolls to whet our appetite while we waited for our entrées. They arrived quickly. The petite filet ($22.95) was about the size of a deck of cards and three times as thick. Perfectly medium rare, charred on the outside and rosy in the center, it was one of the most tender I've had; it could literally be cut with a butter knife.

While the filet's flavor was good (just a touch of earthy metallic warmth), my husband's cowboy rib eye ($29.95) was even juicier and sweeter. Still, I wouldn't have wanted to work as hard as he did cutting around the bone and marbling to get to the succulent meat. A side of garlic mashed potatoes was a great accompaniment, though too buttery for my taste.

On a return visit, the service was just as impressive and the food nearly as good. This time we were with my parents and a friend visiting from Los Angeles, too many people to call us all by name. We were seated in a small dining room with only three tables separated by heavy paneled sliding doors, which the waiter was happy to close when we found a nearby party getting a bit loud.

We found the wine selection to be varied and affordable, and sampled several by the glass. The impressive full list included both expensive and moderately priced bottles from all regions.

Our appetizers and salads were served within minutes of ordering. A mixed field-green salad ($4.95) was composed of tender young lettuces, herbs, chopped scallions, and cherry tomatoes dressed in a delicate balsamic vinaigrette, a perfect starter for the heavy meal to come. The escargot and hearts of artichoke ($9.25) were more filling and decadent. A shallow bowl of snails and fresh hearts of artichoke were sautéed along with button mushrooms, garlic, scallions, lots of butter, and a taste of white wine. Louisiana seafood gumbo ($5.95), a thick and hearty stew, was studded with bits of shrimp, fish, andouille sausage, and chopped vegetables.

Main courses were equally delectable and cholesterol-laden. We tried the filet mignon again, but this time the big one, which was enough for two people. It was slightly more rare but just as flavorful. My friend had the lamb chops ($29.95), three small pale chops that were juicy but a bit fatty. The sweet and refreshing mint jelly nicely balanced the gamey flavor. The roasted chicken was a fantastic surprise and one I doubt is ordered very often here. A half chicken ($17.95) is deboned and served in a rich broth flavored with shallots, thyme, chives, and white wine.

I had a special: two petite filets topped with two large shrimp. They, like all the meat entrées, are served on heated plates and finished with a giant hunk of butter, the source of the signature sizzle of a Ruth's Chris steak. But the dangerously hot plates retain so much heat that this one actually seared itself into the white linen tablecloth. Our waiter wasted no time in rushing to the kitchen to fetch another plate and quickly transferred the food to it. Unfortunately, by the time I finished eating the two huge shrimps and the first filet, the second one had gone from medium rare to well-done, having spent too much time on the hot ceramic plate. When I pointed out the darkened steak to our waiter, he quickly offered to provide complimentary dessert. Not just for me but for the whole table.

It was an unusually generous offer, not one to be greedily exploited. So we ordered three desserts for the five of us to share. When I tasted the outrageous chocolate-chunk bread pudding ($4.50), I was sorry I'd been so polite. The molded mound of mushy, bourbon-and-pudding soaked bread was studded with large pieces of white and dark chocolate, toasted pecans, and smothered in a smooth and creamy caramel sauce. Fresh seasonal berries in sweet cream, and a chocolate sin cake were simpler but also delicious.

It's not often I get a craving for steak, but next time I do, this is where we'll satisfy it. And I'll be sure to have a more interesting nom de cuisine at the ready.

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