Is there even a competition here? I think we all assume that Peter Luger Steak House (the century-old, highly revered, and much heralded dry-aged steak restaurant) would blow any chain restaurant competition out of the water. Plus, Bon Appetit magazine lovingly appointed Peter Luger as "the best" steak in the U.S.
But you'll be surprised at my findings at which restaurant really takes the cake, or should I say, "steak."
"Are you ready for a steak throwdown?"
First up is Ruth's Chris Steak House in San Francisco, California.
There is a bustling city street in San Francisco lined with great steakhouses: (1) Harris' (where they serve pretty delicious steak and potatoes au gratin and obtain their beef supply from the Harris Ranch arm of their business), (2) House of Prime Rib, and (3) Ruth's Chris Steak House. All three steak houses are within less than a city block's distance away from each other on Van Ness Street in San Francisco. Since the beau and I were trying to eat in that area, we agreed to dine at Ruth's Chris, the only steakhouse participating in the Dine About Town prix-fixe program. (This year, the beau convinced me to give the monthly Dine About Town promotion in San Francisco a go one more time. Despite my reluctance and bad experiences with Dine About Town in the past, I agreed.)
Included within the Ruth's Chris $35.00 prix-fixe Dine About Town meal was a simple salad of iceberg, romaine, and baby lettuces with halved grape tomatoes, garlic croutons, and slices of red onion rings. Since our evening was all about the meat, we quickly wolfed down this salad and its light vinaigrette dressing without much fanfare or any real attention. It was a generic salad, nothing more, nor nothing less.
Additionally, the Ruth's Chris prix-fixe meal came with a choice of sides, either (1) a windswept casserole dish of mashed potatoes topped with delicate pools of melted butter and garnished with minced Italian parsley or (2) milky creamed spinach, chopped, strained, and saturated with heavy full-fat cream. We ordered both. While the sides were hearty and filling, they were merely supporting co-stars to the main celebrities of the evening, the dense cuts of dry-aged beef.
For the main course, the beau and I split two types of steak: (1) ribeye, which, according to the menu, is "[a]n outstanding example of USDA Prime at its best. Well marbled for peak flavor, deliciously juicy," and (2) the petite filet mignon, which the menu described as the "[m]ost tender cut of midwestern corn-fed beef."
The ribeye came with showered with a sprinkling of chopped herbs and a melted lake of foamy butter, cascading down the surface and into crevices of the medium-rare meat. Within the seared exterior of the ribeye lay huge canyons filled with rivers of crimson jus. The slick and glistening cut of ribeye meat was bursting with juices and possessed a hearty, nutty flavor. The ribeye was definitely the highlight of the protein-packed evening.
Oddly, I found the filet mignon to actually be a little tougher and more resistant than the ribeye. I could definitely feel the strength of the meat grains against my steak knife and my teeth. Despite the firm, dense texture, the filet was full-bodied in beefy protein flavor. The filet was delicately surrounded by what looked like moat of emulsified butter heated under a broiler until browned and bubbly. Ah, butter. The perfect dipping sauce for steak!
We ended our meal at Ruth's Chris with two desserts, the first being a New Orleans-style bread pudding with a whiskey sauce. A powerful yet sweet whiskey and vanilla fragrance permeated the condensed milk and absorbent bread pudding mattress. The saturated pudding was (1) interspersed with plumped raisins, (2) flavored with grounded aromatic spices of cinnamon and nutmeg, and (3) blanketed with a mahogany-colored caramelized crust.
We also shared a key lime pie, which was sinfully as rich and decadent as a cheesecake, but also light and refreshing. The pie was complimented with an awakening and invigorating bite of brisk lime zest and tart lime juice.
Now, onto the competitor! How do the steak and sides at Peter Luger in Brooklyn compare to that of a (gasp), upscale chain steak restaurant? According to many of my New York friends, you haven't lived until you've dined at least once at Peter Luger. Therefore, I had high expectations for Peter Luger from the moment I walked in, despite its non-pretentious German beerhaus decor.
First off, our lofty expectations of Peter Luger were only reinforced when we tried the baked goods inside Peter Luger's tabletop bread basket. Inside the complimentary basket o' carbs sat a diverse offering of onion rye bread and seasoned crackers encrusted with sesame seeds and sizeable salt crystals. The breads and peppery crackers were intriguingly and lip-smackingly delicious, for they were packed with multi-dimensional flavors from the potent rye seeds and the liberal salt seasoning.
A tiny taste of Peter Luger's famed steak sauce further increased the hype. The steak sauce tasted like a chunky combination of Worcestershire sauce, crushed tomatoes, molasses, and grated horseradish. The sauce was so sweet, it bordered on cloying, but had a bright, tangy, and palate-refreshing bite. Simply summarized, that sauce was hella good, and delivered a swift punch of deliciousness to my tongue.
The sauce and bread though, only whetted our appetite for the main attraction, the steak.
After apprehensively staring at their barebones menu, we finally decided to order after a good half an hour. We settled on the (1) prime rib and (2) porterhouse steak, both medium-rare and both dry-aged in the classic Peter Luger fashion.
Based on my understanding, the process of dry-aging beef produces the most supple of results. Wikipedia states that there are two steps to the process of dry-aging beef: "First, moisture is evaporated from the muscle. This creates a greater concentration of beef flavor and taste. Second, the beef's natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which leads to more tender beef."
Upon being served, I immediately noticed a blackened outer layer of carcinogenic char encrusting the steaks, which was a little bit of a turnoff for me. Also, unlike other steak restaurants, Peter Luger's steaks come out pre-cut into large fish stick-sized hunks, with the accompanying bone. The only beef I have with pre-cut meat (pun intended), is that Peter Luger deprives you of the joy of piercing into steak and watching the liquid jus spill forth. Also, I felt that the servers left a little too much meat on the bone, and the orientation of the bone wasn't conducive for removing the remaining meat without making a scene and gnawing and chewing the meat off with my teeth like a cavewoman.
As for the taste? It was heavenly. The beef definitely lived up to its dry-aged claims. The texture of the steaks were lusciously buttery. Through the dry-aging process, it was clear to my tastebuds that the beef flavor had concentrated and evolved into a complex meaty explosion of flavors, ranging from earthy to "wow." The steak at Peter Luger was supple and creamy, yet firm and rich, almost like a silken pate or meat pudding with a slippery, juicy finish. There was a soft nuttiness, and I could clearly taste a strong beef flavor, which was dissimilar from my previous experience of eating kobe beef. (If that kobe beef had been dry-aged, I would have been on that steak like a fly.)
The bone held together the remnants of sinew and jiggly beef fat that tenderly clung on like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Along with our steaks, we also ordered two sides: (1) Luger's special German fried potatoes and (2) creamed spinach. As for the fried potatoes, I implore you, don't expect anything life-changing. Basically, these potatoes are the equivalent of chunky breakfast potatoes that you can get at your local diner. Overpriced? Yes. Only decent? Yes.
Lastly, and actually, least appealing, was the mushy, slimy excuse for creamed spinach. It was overseasoned with nutmeg and pulverized into a sloppy goop akin to baby food or liquefied paste. The free chocolate coins that the server handed out with the bill couldn't even redeem this disaster.
To its demerit, Peter Luger really failed on its disappointing sides. The lackluster sides were a mere afterthought, and seriously overpriced.
Nonetheless, in the battle for superior steaks, as expected, Peter Luger won this round, for juicy and succulent dry-aged steaks. However, Ruth's Chris came out a worthy contender with its delicious ribeye steak, and its affordable prix-fixe option which included salad, sides, and a dessert for $35.00.