Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS
Let’s be frank: Dinner at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse inevitably ends with you and your crew spilling out onto the corner of Seventh and Walnut glutted on profoundly decadent steak. Rich close-your-eyes-and-praise-your-deity hunks of meat. If this is all you’re looking for, just turn the page now.
In an era of small entrées, juice fasts, and clean eating, Ruby’s thrives with bombastic defiance. Ruby (born Brian Jeffrey Kranz) started with The Precinct in 1981 and doubled down on his carefully curated, American Hustle–style image in late 1999 with the addition of Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse. His ambition didn’t end there. Two more iterations of the original steakhouse followed (the one at Belterra Casino in Indiana has closed; the one in Louisville is still going), and two more versions appear to be on the way (in Lexington and Nashville). And while his Miami Vice–era riverboat pleasure palace The Waterfront sank into the Ohio last year, he’s kept suburban carnivores and cougars satisfied at Carlo & Johnny, a gaudy-but-fun Italian-inspired steakhouse in Montgomery. Still, his downtown flagship remains the pride of the fleet: an over-the-top, Art Deco–inspired whirlwind, maxed out with one glittery chandelier after another, including an original from the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. Once ensconced in my maroon leather-and-velvet banquette, I peered across a dining room flush with a professional athlete or two, one elected official, and more than a small sample of surgically-enhanced citizens.
Yet for a space that oozes so much bravado, the menu is surprisingly egoless: Classic chophouse fare, a few token veggies, and plenty of high-octane red wine to wash down the meat. OK, that’s not entirely true. Ruby’s current chef Dave Taylor (formerly of La Poste) has found a way to carve out his own niche. His pork belly appetizer incorporates julienned Granny Smith apples, the tart sweetness tempering the fatty richness of the pork. And his “scallops in the woods”—three seared sea scallops served over “sea beans” (actually samphire, a succulent plant native to salt marshes) and pickled celeriac, accompanied by a bacon-infused dashi (a Japanese stock traditionally simmered with kombu seaweed and dried fish)—manages to hold its own, the dashi’s subtle umami notes echoing the de rigueur meatiness crowding the rest of the menu.
Not to insinuate that the house that Ruby built doesn’t do seafood. Florida grouper is sourced from a single vendor who guarantees the fish was swimming a mere 48 hours before delivery. The dense, meaty filet arrives atop an earthy puree of cauliflower, a few sauteed mushrooms, and dill sauce. I had less luck with Taylor’s braised lamb shank. Buttery potato puree, white beans, and kale begged for tender morsels of lamb. Unfortunately, my lackluster leg arrived barely room temperature and not quite tender, only reaching its intended apogee in my microwave somewhere around 3 a.m.
While the beef is no longer aged on site, the sky-high expectations remain. My dry-aged 22-ounce bone-in rib eye was the best steak I’ve had in years: well marbled and abundantly ferrous-flavored. And just forget what you’ve heard about leaner cuts having less flavor. Jeff Ruby’s Gem, the 16-ounce center-cut filet, had that persistent acrid undertone I crave. Sadly, the 14-ounce New York strip was a disaster—overcooked, dry, and fibrous. Hard to believe it emerged from the same kitchen as the previous two cuts. The sides showed similar inconsistency. For every moment spent wishing I could roll around in a kiddie pool of the creamed spinach, I spent equal time picking at the rubbery mac-and-cheese and wishing the potatoes Anna weren’t raw in the center.
The powerful wine list was more reassuring. Fresh off their “Best of Award of Excellence” from Wine Spectator earlier this year, there’s plenty of dazzle on display: cult cabs (Harlan, Caymus, and Araujo), not to mention first-growth Bordeaux (a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 2005 will set you back $2,000). Super-premium six-ounce glass pours of Antinori’s Tignanello and Opus One’s Proprietary Blend are available at $60 and $75 per glass, respectively. I had no trouble succumbing to the charms of Sequoia Grove’s balanced, fruit-forward cabernet sauvignon (a comparative steal at $20 a glass). Seafood lovers will find plenty of high acidity whites worth quaffing as well; the Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc and Hopler grüner veltliner are both smart bets at or below $10 a glass. But great wine deserves quality service. Our man had considerable trouble articulating the options—describing two of his suggestions simply as “rockin’.”
Ruby’s sure shot is undeniably the sweet spot. Pastry chef Amy Guterba has smuggled her ethereal ricotta doughnuts out of the kitchen at Sotto, and she’s perfected the art of transforming workhorse desserts (think cheesecake and crème brûlée) into visual stunners. The apple crumb pie’s delicate crust was chock full of tart apple slices under a mound of beyond-creamy vanilla ice cream, all of which should have made her salty caramel sauce superfluous. Instead it was sublime.
Diners and critics alike can be quick to call foul when a steakhouse succumbs to trendy innovations, but just as apt to turn up their noses when they think one is overtly stodgy. Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse occupies that gray area somewhere in the middle. While most of the fundamentals are in place—chefs capable of innovating with top-notch ingredients, not to mention an owner with an eagle eye for detail—the kitchen sometimes stumbles over the simplest matters of execution. With one of the highest check averages in town, it’s jarring to reconcile this tremendous potential against the baffling inconsistencies. Yes, Ruby’s gives great steak, but it comes with a side of risk.
Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse, 700 Walnut St., downtown, (513) 784-1200, jeffruby.com
Hours: Dinner Mon–Thurs 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11
Prices: $9 (Blue Crab Bisque)–$80 (28-oz. bone-in rib eye)
Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS
Originally published in the January 2015 issue