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Raising the Steaks

Las Vegas Steak Houses
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

Sometime between the invention of the internal combustion engine and the free-glass-with-every-fill-up promotion, the oil industry determined that a group of filling stations clustered on a corner--far from diluting business--seemed to generate more of it. Las Vegas seems to be testing the gastronomic equivalent of that theory with the confluence of Ruth's Chris, Morton's and Del Frisco's within a block's radius of the corner of Flamingo and Paradise roads

Locals had already called Flamingo Road, with its lineup of eateries from the Strip to Paradise Road, Restaurant Row. When Morton's (in May) and Del Frisco's (in July) joined Ruth's Chris near Paradise (pun unavoidable), that distinction was locked in. 

Over the last couple of years, steak wars have been waged across the United States as Americans have returned to a taste for beef following a disastrous dalliance with rabbit food. Beef demand rose 5.2 percent in the first half of 2000 compared with the same period in 1999, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Steak houses, from upscale to down market, in cities from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon, have battled each other for their share of the meat market. It seems only fitting that Las Vegas, a town born of excess and testosterone, should be the next major battlefield.  

Not that steak is anything new to Vegas. Certainly, one assumes, the carousing of the Rat Pack was fueled, at least in part, by red meat. And steak of the $4.99-buffet-special variety has long been a staple of the city. Furthermore, virtually every casino now boasts a steak restaurant. But it's hard to imagine that chops houses face off so pointedly against each other in Las Vegas (or anywhere else in the country, for that matter).  

Established in 1989, long before the other two steak havens, Ruth's Chris seems little perturbed by the arrival of its competitors. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," vice president Roberta Thompson quips. And, besides, she predicts, the rivalry will only bring more diners out her way from the Strip. "The more traffic, the better for all concerned."  

Michelle O'Hala, marketing manager at Morton's, says that its move from the Fashion Show Mall to the corner of Flamingo and Paradise was prompted by the need to find a new location after the mall remodeled. The corner offered a free-standing venue on one of the busiest junctions in town, she says. The company knew Del Frisco's would be joining the party before the move, but "that didn't matter either way in the decision."  

For Del Frisco's part, cofounder Dee Lincoln says that in its long search for a Las Vegas location, the restaurant was looking for a free-standing venue with drive-up capability. That left out the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard), she says. Paradise Road was a destination that Del Frisco's was already interested in because of the feeling that it would cater to the fast growing convention business. Although Morton's opened first, Del Frisco's planned its move to Vegas earlier. Lincoln doesn't seem to mind that the restaurant suddenly finds itself plopped into a center of competition: "Any time you have additional restaurants in an area, it drives appeal and it's a win-win situation."  

So, whether by design or serendipity, meat lovers now have one convenient nexus in Las Vegas from which they can choose three great steak meals.    

DEL FRISCO'S DOUBLE EAGLE STEAK HOUSE
3925 Paradise Road 702/796-0063  

Reviewed only a week after opening its doors last July, Del Frisco's quickly raised the bar for steak eateries in Las Vegas. Its level of food and service are a testament to the kind of quality control that the owners maintain as the small chain grows (this is its fifth location). The pampering begins immediately after you step out of your cab and enter through the foyer in back of the low-slung building. Sit down and you're attended by a phalanx of wait staff, bringing water, hot bread, cold drinks. Ask them to leave you alone and they discreetly disappear until they mystically divine you need service again.  

Like all great steak houses, Del Frisco's indulges its patrons to excess, but never to a fault. Appetizers are large, but not meal killers, and lean toward seafood (oysters, crab cakes, much shrimp) with the welcome inclusion of beluga caviar (available in servings up to 8 3/4 ounces).  

The sea is also well represented on the entrée menu (Australian lobster, halibut with citrus vinaigrette, salmon with Tchoupitoulas sauce), but you don't come to Del Frisco's for that. What you do come for are its signature cuts like the 24-ounce prime Porterhouse and Double Eagle strip steak (bone-in, 26 ounces). These are meat masterpieces and showcase the high-quality Midwestern beef that is delivered twice a week. A personal favorite is the cut that is almost apologized for on the menu. An asterisk next to the prime rib eye (16 ounces) notes that while it's flavorful, it's also well marbled.

"Don't order it if you want a lean cut of beef," the menu warns. Do order it, however, if you want the sensation of completely savory, buttery meat lingering on your palate for the entire evening. The waiter stresses that the steaks are cooked "true," which translates to a little rarer than you might be used to. One carnage complaint: no Béarnaise sauce.  

Collecting trophy wines at auction is a passion for Lincoln and it spills over into the cellar at Del Frisco's, which has been recognized in other locations with such honors as the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Predictably for a steak house, it excels in the categories of big bold red wines, and regions in California and France are best represented.  

While not as grandiose as the 16,000-square-foot New York venue, which opened only months earlier, the Vegas Del Frisco's has a sort of crisp and clean clubbiness to it. Wainscoting offers the prerequisite wood of the genre, without the concomitant dreariness of full wood paneling. Force yourself to fit in a strawberry and ice cream parfait and amble over to the darker, but roomy cigar lounge. There you'll find a selection of such premier hard-to-get smokes as Fuente Fuente OpusX "A" ($200), Padrón Anniversary Exclusivo ($25) and Ashton Virgin Sun Grown No. 1 ($25). If you're a regular you can rummage through your private locker. Order from the selection of superpremium whiskeys (running heavily to Scotches) and listen to the piano player's rendition of "As Time Goes By." Play it again, Dee.    

MORTON'S OF CHICAGO
400 East Flamingo Road 702/893-0703  

One of the comforts of Morton's is the consistency of quality and service from location to location. You can walk into its Singapore restaurant and expect to get essentially the same dining experience as you had in Boston the week before. The hobgoblin of this consistency is the famous Morton's tableside menu presentation.  

Your waiter arrives with a cart piled with meat sealed in plastic wrap, as well as vegetables and a live lobster. In a very scripted and wooden manner he runs through the cuts of aged Midwestern meat Morton's serves, from the huge Porterhouse (one-third filet mignon, two-thirds New York strip steak separated by a bone) to the diminutive filet. Then he shows you some of the salad offerings and explains how easy it will be to eat the lobster after it is sliced and cracked. The disadvantage of this is you tend to space out on what he's saying as you start to wonder how old that sirloin is that he's holding and whether the lobster should be reported to the humane society. The advantage is the first-timer gets an idea of what kind of overindulgence he'll encounter at Morton's.  

You see exactly how big a three-pound lobster is as it twitches away in front of you and realize that, if by some bizarre twist that's not big enough, you could have a five-pounder. The Porterhouse could serve three. The potatoes are football-sized. A tomato at Morton's could be a filling lunch for some.  

The Morton's experience begins to shine once the preliminaries are taken care of. The signature Porterhouse is, of course, a special experience, but may require a note from your cardiologist to eat on your own. Among the smaller cuts, the filet isn't as good, but comes with a nice Béarnaise sauce (you can wheedle sauce, including beurre blanc, for other cuts than they were intended). The Cajun rib eye is the sleeper on the meat menu, which also includes veal and lamb chops. Salmon and swordfish are available as well.  

It is in the vegetable sides and appetizers that Morton's trumps Del Frisco's. Broccoli arrives bathed in Hollandaise. Beefsteak tomato salads prove that size does matter. The lobster bisque stands out among the savory soups.  

The wine list is also quite large, but not as fully realized as at Morton's in New York and San Francisco. Its retinue of California Cabernets is broad but relatively safe and young, with wines such as Beringer, Caymus and Opus One. The large list is impressive.  

The cigar selection doesn't reach the high bar that Del Frisco's has set. The proferred brands--Davidoff, Montecristo, Macanudo and Partagas--are aimed at a milder palate. Cigars are enjoyed in the woody bar room that also excels in whiskeys and after-dinner drinks.  

The wait staff, while quite attentive, seems to be always trying to sell you more food, even if you've tried begging off. In retrospect, you might deem that a favor, however, as you relent and sinfully dive into the chocolate velvet cake.    

RUTH'S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
3900 Paradise Road 702/791-7011  

Of the steak corner trine, Ruth's Chris is easily (with 69 outlets worldwide) the most well represented outside of Vegas. True to the restaurant's origins (founder Ruth Fertel bought Chris Steak House in New Orleans and changed its name per her contract when she switched locations), it, like all the chain's other venues, does steak-house fare with a Louisiana flair. Dishes such as shrimp Remoulade, Louisiana seafood gumbo and bread pudding with whiskey sauce dot the menu, which brags that true to "New Orleans Style, we serve you portions generous enough to share."  

Also true to the Big Easy roots is its decidedly casual atmosphere. This is in part by design, but must also be a function of its strip mall location and comparatively pared menu. One probably doesn't come to Ruth's Chris expecting the same big-night-out experience that is the promise of the other two restaurants in this steak continuum. Not that formality of dress or manner is much of an issue in Las Vegas. Just don't expect to be seated near a lot of people wearing suits and ties. On the other hand, that refusal to stand on form affords one advantage that the other two steak houses don't: service at lunchtime.  

Ruth's Chris makes much of its particularly gluttonous steak preparation. The aged Midwestern beef is seared at 1,800 degrees to lock in flavors and then served in sizzling butter on a scorching 500-degree plate. Aside from the obvious safety concerns (waiters make a point of warning patrons about the intense heat), one wonders how such a cholesterol tonic goes over in these days of political correctness. The waiter says few opt for their meat without the butter and some brave souls actually ask for more.  

The deep wine list, while not cutting-edge, stands out among the testosterone-laced steak house collections of reds with its many mature and established Napa Cabernet Sauvignons, such as Opus One and Caymus Special Selection. The Bordeaux list is liberally laced with first growths such as Château Margaux and Château Lafite Rothschild.  

An otherwise lackluster cigar list is brightened by the occasional Arturo Fuente Short Story or Hemingway. The Havana Cigar Company, which stands next door and stays open late, is a frequent choice for Ruth's Chris diners, who can drop in for cheaper smokes and walk them back to the restaurant's well-stocked bar for after-dinner drinks.    

STEAK HOUSES OF THE STRIP  

PRIME
Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 702/693-7223  

Endowed with the best view of any Vegas steak house, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Prime sits on the edge of the Bellagio's fountains where diners can watch the water-and-light show while they chomp away. Inside, the Michael De Santis décor--purple velvet walls, marble floor, sky blue drapes, massive chairs--seems a little fussy for those expecting a chop shop. So might the menu (heavy on sauces, and the recommended steak is a strip plastered with six pepper corns). Well then, raise your expectations. Excellent humidor. Cigars are to be enjoyed on the deck.    

SMITH & WOLLENSKY
3767 Las Vegas Blvd. S. 702/862-4100  

This New York institution travels well to Las Vegas, where its curbside location is not as sprawling but has captured some of the saloon ambience of its East Coast counterpart. The steaks are breathtakingly big, seafood appetizers excellent and the wine list extensive. The wait staff is friendly and fun. A waiter points to his girth to back up his recommendation of a sirloin steak. The wine list asks diners to "make an offer" for Opus One.    


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