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“It ain’t the meat; it’s the motion,” the Swallows sang in 1951, weighing in on the eternal debate about whether size really matters. Maybe so, but at a steakhouse, as everyone knows, it’s definitely the meat. Everything is big at a steakhouse, from the side dishes that could feed a family of four to the tables to the cutlery to the cavernous spaces themselves. There’s a reason that steakhouses are more popular than ever, even in this age of hyper-fat-consciousness and widened culinary opportunities: Ahi tuna with multicolored zigzags of sauce might be a pleasant little diversion, but nothing satisfies quite like a slab of sirloin as big as your face.
And then there’s Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, an unassuming neighborhood joint that seems content to leave the swaggering to the big boys downtown. You’re likely to find yourself wondering, as you walk in, whether you’ve misread the sign out front. The minimalist decor—eggshell white and chocolate brown on otherwise unadorned walls, and an unobstructed view of the kitchen—is more suited to a modish bistro than a steakhouse.
In fact, chef/owner Michael “Ray” Landrum was previously a cook at Restaurant Nora, and he shares Nora Pouillon’s fresh-from-the-vine, keep-it-simple aesthetic. What he has no use for is cultivating a fussy clientele by turning out elegant little dishes that reinforce the cult of the chef. With his untucked, bold-print shirts and dreamy, distracted air, Landrum comes across as a surfer dude who just happens to have his own kitchen. One night, making the rounds of the dining room, he noted approvingly the flip-flops one customer was wearing and claimed that he’d soon be sporting a pair himself. “Hey,” he said, “it’s all about comfort, right?”
Fortunately, the laid-back attitude doesn’t extend to the kitchen. Actually, the cooking reveals an almost nerdy attention to detail. It’s a good sign, for example, that the lowly burger is so carefully elaborated here. The half-pound sirloin patty, ground fresh every morning, is seasoned only with salt and pepper, then left to sit on the grill until it develops a thick char. The kitchen, it’s nice to see, has a good understanding of the difference between medium rare and medium, but more important, Ray’s obeys the First Law of Beef: Juiciness matters more than seasoning. Sure, there are 16 toppings to choose from, including charred tomatoes, roasted jalapenos, crumbled blue cheese, wild mushrooms, and grilled onions, but a burger this good doesn’t really doesn’t need any dressing up.
On my third visit to Ray’s, I took a good friend of mine to celebrate his birthday. I could see he was skeptical of the steaks when he took in the Outback-ish prices—most of them are under $17—but he was converted when he bit into his Black and Blue New Yorker, an inch-plus-thick, peppercorn-coated strip that put up so little resistance to his steak knife that he was tempted to see if he might do the rest of his cutting with a butter knife. It didn’t work: You can’t get ubertenderness like at Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris if you’re not going to pay more than $20 a cut.
You can’t get the same depth of flavor, either, but Ray’s makes up with the sauces that accompany the filet mignon and the New York strip. (The porterhouse, being bone-in and generally juicier as a result, arrives unescorted.) The sauces are all cream-based, but they’re not at all cloying, thanks to a splash or two of booze (a cognac in one case, a brandy in the other). The birthday boy, in fact, was so taken by the brandy-cream-mushroom sauce that he wondered aloud, in all seriousness, if it were possible to order the sauce without also ordering the steak.
The best dish here, the beef short ribs, has recently been deleted from the menu, possibly a casualty of summer. Though I understand the decision—braising hardly results in light dog-day fare—I’m looking forward to the onset of colder weather. The ribs are slow-cooked for upward of six hours in a bath of Guinness until the meat falls away from the bones. The resulting gravy, which is finished with a dollop of Colman’s mustard, possesses an almost bourguignonlike intensity. I like the accompanying Red Bliss mashed potatoes—Ray’s leaves their skins on and loads them up with just enough cream and butter to taste good, but not enough to lodge like a weight in your gut—but here they’re mostly an excuse to sop up as much of that gravy as possible.
The cooking doesn’t exactly suffer from carelessness when it comes to fish and seafood, but the results aren’t nearly so satisfying. Landrum claims to drop by a seafood market in Shirlington four times a week, and the menu reflects what’s freshest, which is as it should be. But it probably also explains the kitchen’s inconsistency when it has to deal with surf instead of turf. Take a recent tuna-steak special: The fish was certainly fresh, but it was neither thick nor fatty enough to be given a quick searing and served rare. Tuna is unique among fishes (and probably closer to beef in this respect) in that the longer it’s cooked, the tougher, less silken it becomes. The catfish fillets, by contrast, are thick and meaty, and the buttermilk soak they’ve been given in advance of cooking results in a sweet flavor and firm texture that can withstand the rigors of blackening. Still, the result is good but not memorable. And the stingy little cup of mango-tomato salsa that sits perched on the edge of the plate lacks the flavorful punch of the cream sauces.
Even so, I can’t understand why there’s not more of it, because Ray’s is not a place that skimps. The plate is flanked by two huge skillets, one bearing a mound of those same mashed potatoes, the other a mound of creamed spinach, enlivened by a pinch of fresh grated nutmeg. It’s a wonder more people don’t leave with doggie bags.
Then again, why save for later what makes you fat and happy now? Hell, I was raised on that very principle. Evidently, so was Landrum, a born feeder. Twice I’ve pushed myself away from the table certain that I couldn’t possibly force down another bite, and twice Landrum has sidled by to tempt me with dessert: “Come on. What could a little pie hurt?” Answer: Nothing, if the featured fruit happens to be deserving of being showcased without any sugar (the cherry, for instance). A wan blueberry, however, only points up the limitations of this approach. The Key lime is the only standby among the rotating group of pies, and with good reason: It succeeds in balancing a dense creaminess with a lip-puckering tartness.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Ray’s—and it’s the same thing that dinner at home with my parents taught me—it’s that leaving without dessert is not just futile but could quite possibly be regarded as an act of impudence. At the end of my second visit, I’d told the waitress no pie, paid up, and begun to walk out. I was standing by the door when Landrum waved goodnight from the kitchen.
“Hey,” he called out as I pulled back the door. “Did you get any pie tonight?”
Too full, I said. Next time.
“I’ve got one slice left. You don’t even have to eat it now. Take it home and later tonight, when you get hungry, it’ll be there for you.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but someone pushing a slice of pie on me when I’m about ready to burst—that doesn’t just say home. That says love.
Ray’s the Steaks, 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. (703) 841-7297. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.