A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Once upon a time during a previous life, so long ago that Michael Jordan still played for Da Bulls, I had dinner at Louisville’s branch of Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
The restaurant was (and is) perched on the 16th floor of the Kaden Tower, with a spectacular view of the Watterson Expressway and adjoining suburbs, complete with a hazy filter of exhaust fumes as a soothing background for selfies, which of course didn’t even exist at the time.
It was a fine evening, and while I’ve long since forgotten what I ate and drank that night, there remains one serviceable memory of the occasion: Looking around the dining room and seeing lots of customers in the process of cheerfully dropping C-notes for an appetizer, entrée and dessert, then washing down these fruits of their expense accounts with $5 Miller Lites – often straight from the bottle.
In short, nauseating and revolting, although I’m prepared to concede something important, for the fact that I even noticed this scene probably says a lot more about me and the gnawing of my own resident demons than Ruth’s Chris Steak House or its habitués.
After all, I’m neither a frequent consumer of steaks nor a regular patron of those restaurants specializing in them. It alarms me that so far in 2016, I’ve eaten four hamburgers, which probably equals my total from all of last year.
For me, beef should be safe, legal … and rare.
Accordingly, earlier this month, for the first time in a year, we enjoyed an excellent night out with friends at Z’s Oyster Bar and Steakhouse in downtown Louisville.
It should surprise no one to learn that such an evening constituted a major splurge, but even if we were wealthy, it isn’t something we’d do regularly.
If for no other reason, my gout medicine soon would be overwhelmed by the blood, shellfish and Port.
Z’s is pricey, and very good. A half-dozen tasty West Coast oysters at a place like Z’s cost more than the entrée at most of my usual haunts, and three hours later, after an entire bottle of Malbec, half of an unfortunate heifer and a glass or two of Graham’s Six Grapes for dessert, with various other nibbles scattered throughout, I was heavier around the waist and lighter in the wallet.
So, for comic relief, here is the Z’s beer list.
In truth, it’s a slightly better selection than I would have imagined. Nine golden lagers in varying shades of quantifiably insipid, but two barrel-aged beers and two hops-forward options. To be sure, congratulations are due them for featuring four local beers. All in all, the list could be worse.
It also could be far, far better.
(A disclaimer: In no way is any of this to be construed as a complaint about Z’s. Everything about my experiences there – food, service and atmosphere – have been uniformly excellent. My head-scratching extends beyond a single eatery, to the realm of universals.)
Why is it that the model of “steakhouse” in the context of Z’s, Ruth’s Chris and so many others invariably – inevitably, infuriatingly – shortchanges beer options, which nowadays are plentiful and stylistically varied, but also would immeasurably enhance the overall experience for those so inclined?
Perhaps it’s because there is no documentary evidence to suggest that the customer base of such a steakhouse desires beer choice. Moreover, the profit margin on wine and liquor surely dwarfs the return on beer, so only a few popular lagers are kept around for the die-hards, and that’s that.
I’ve long since learned to mournfully adapt. Precisely because my operating assumption is that steakhouses customarily downplay beer, I harbor absolutely no expectations once I’ve resolved to dine at one of them.
Instead, I generally drink wine, all the while imagining what certain styles of beers would taste like paired with interesting menu items.
Admittedly my sampling is small, and exceptions surely plentiful. Just last week, Brooklyn and The Butcher opened in New Albany, and while the “see cow, eat cow” cognoscenti can debate whether it should be compared with the preceding and other similar establishments, the short beer list at Brooklyn already is certifiably better than the one at Z’s.
Consequently, in the future when a splurge is merited, I know where I’ll be walking.
In the interim, I’m left to ponder examples of how it might be done better, and that’s easy. In my tortured, beer-forward universe, there already exists a model for how this might work.
It’s called Belgium – the country and its beers.
Specifically, the Café de la Paix on the main square in Poperinge, which I cite here because only a year and a half ago, we ate there. The same is true of the dining room at the Hotel Palace, a scant 200 yards away, but we didn’t make it to the Palace in 2014. Needless to say, there is a corresponding example in every town of size in the country, at large.
Café de la Paix is a full service restaurant, offering an excellent wine list and a full bar in addition to a lengthy beer sheet. Is it the exact equal of Z’s or Ruth’s Chris? I doubt it, but to reiterate, the point is to illustrate how beer and steak go together.
Here is what I had for dinner.
Opener: Escargot with Rodenbach Grand Cru. The oyster-like texture of snails, slathered in garlic and butter, with a classically sour, wood-aged red ale to cut through the richness.
Main Course: Steak (medium rare) with Béarnaise sauce, green salad, frites and De Dolle Oerbier; the latter is malty, fruity and complex, and elegantly fills the slot red wine might otherwise occupy.
Closer: Rochfort 10, and a stolen bit of a fellow diner’s tart. Still one of the top Trappists on the planet, and a dark, rich dessert in a bottle.
Total cost: Somewhere around $50.
Fifty bucks, forty Euros; they’d buy plenty of groceries here or in Europe – and this is utterly irrelevant. It was a special occasion, and cause for celebration. Add my wife’s meal and drinks, recall that the gratuity is included, and know that this wonderful, beer-friendly meal was one-third the cost of our recent Z’s feast … and not only that, outside it was Belgium, not Louisville.
Priceless, wouldn’t you say?
Last week: The PC: Swill in youthful times of penury and need.
When the Euro '85 series returns: Leningrad USSR.