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STEAKING A CLAIM

The Beef Council couldn't have put it any better than Mark Twain did in A Tramp Abroad: "Imagine a poor exile, and imagine an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porterhouse steak an inch and a half thick, hot and sputtering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper, enriched with melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy."

Just imagine--and then you should have no trouble deciding what's for dinner.
Although this country's love affair with beef began long before Twain came on the scene, few cities are as enamored of meat as is Denver. And with good reason: We are in the West, where cattle is king, and we're as protective of our steak houses as a cow is of her calf during a stampede. Which is why when an outsider like Ruth's Chris Steak House moves into town, pardner, there's gonna be a showdown--particularly when it stakes out territory only a few blocks from Denver's ruling meat market, Morton's of Chicago (itself an import, but a decade in Denver almost qualifies you as a native). That the three-month-old Ruth's Chris was ready for battle became readily apparent after Rocky Mountain News restaurant critic Bill St. John compared it unfavorably to Morton's; Ruth's Chris fired off a flurry of outraged press releases essentially accusing St. John of being a meathead.

But he was certainly right about one thing: As far as the meat goes, there's no comparison. Morton's is simply the best around, even if the steaks are expensive and the scene is cliquish and the service is snottier than a French waiter is to Americans at Maxim's.

All of which Ruth's Chris was well aware of when it arrived. "Of course, we're going to have to try to do some things better than Morton's," says Rusty Smith, one of three general managers at Denver's Ruth's Chris. "So we're concentrating on service. We're concentrating on a level of comfortable elegance. We want to be a place to relax, where it doesn't matter who you are--you're going to be treated well."

And we were. As at most places where the clientele resembles the cast of The Firm, the decor at Ruth's Chris is stylishly manly and the portions are something to brag about. But while the difference in price between Ruth's Chris and Morton's is small--a few bucks per cut--the difference in taste is huge. This is dry-aging country, but Ruth's Chris sticks with a wet-aging process. As a result, its beef is juicier and more tender but less intensely flavored, with a lighter color and a cruder quality. The cuts, however, are impeccable--all prime, a grade awarded to only 2 percent of meat--and the cooking method makes the most of the wet-aging.

The meat comes to Ruth's Chris from a breaking house in Illinois where, after slaughtering, the sides meet cryovac, the technologically advanced way of aging beef in its own juices. "By the time the meat lands on our dock," Smith says, "it has been wet-aged for about 28 days." According to John Thompson at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that's seven days over the minimum for quality flavor. "The longer the better, really," he says. "You want to see aging between three to six weeks. That's what softens the connecting tissue, so you get tenderness, and that's what improves the flavor."

So does the fat content, which can be a problem for some customers. "People equate fat with a lesser grade, I believe, and when they come into a restaurant that only serves prime, they think they should get no fat," Smith explains. "Then they order a rib-eye, with its vein of fat, and they think they're getting a cheap steak. But the fat is where the flavor is."

At Ruth's Chris, the steak gets even fatter courtesy a pat of butter, which is slipped onto every cut on its way out of the 1,800-degree broiler. The richness of the butter cuts some of the beef's less refined taste, and the high heat makes for quick cooking--which, despite what you may have heard about searing, is what actually keeps the juices in. Searing provides textural contrast by creating a crust, which I confess I missed at Ruth's Chris, particularly with the hefty New York strip ($24.95). The fact that this is the least tender of the short-loin cuts didn't matter, because here it was as smooth as the butter pooled around it. But despite our specs--which were met--of medium-rare, the strip had a just-killed quality. So did the petite filet ($18.95), eight ounces of tenderloin that, while not the best I've had, certainly wasn't the worst.

The rest of our meals were a big--and I mean big--improvement over the steaks. Twain himself might have found extra food for thought in Ruth's Chris's side dishes and desserts. Of course, Twain wrote his travelogue in the late 1800s, and Ruth Fertel didn't dream of starting her venture, now the largest upscale restaurant company in the country, until 1977, when she renounced her chemistry degree to buy a small New Orleans restaurant called Chris Steak House (hence the awkward name). Today there are 46 Ruth's Chris restaurants, 26 of them franchised. Denver's is one of those; it belongs to restaurateur Marcel Taylor of Las Vegas, where he owns two others. With a handful of exceptions, however, the Ruth's Chris recipes are the same everywhere.

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