2014 Spring Dining Guide
Back to Basics
By Tom Sietsema
May 15, 2014
Welcome to the poor man’s Morton’s, the Ruth’s Chris for folks who want a good steak dinner without the froufrou or the three-digit tabs. Introduced as Ray’s the Classics in 2006 by Michael Landrum, the owner of the democratic Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, the Silver Spring restaurant shortened its name to the Classics when Landrum sold the business to a general manager last year. Not much seems to have changed since the switch. You still get spicy cashews before your meal, the crab imperial is still a snowball of sweet, sherry butter-drenched seafood, and the menu revels in a stockyard of beef, cuts of which are better eaten plain than with any of the distracting toppings. Go for the hanger steak if you prefer some chew with your meat, the aged rib-eye if you dig juice and char. The Caesar salad needs more punch to be a classic, and even a cup of the crab bisque threatens to spoil an appetite. Of the traditional sides, the baked potato is steak’s best friend. The original restaurant was never flashy, nor was it intended to be, but the spare dining rooms definitely show signs of wear and tear; a customer doesn’t have to look closely to notice the chips on the walls, the tables, even some of the china. The most comfortable seating, by the way, involves the capacious, Heinz 57-colored booths, attended to by servers every bit as relaxed as the reggae in the airwaves. With the check comes a sweet ending: gratis hot chocolate in cold weather and house-made chocolate candy when it’s warm.
Back to Basics
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007
Much of what made Ray's the Classics an instant hit when it opened last year has been struck from the menu. The free valet parking? Gone. The nostalgia-prompting relish tray served when patrons sat down? It's missing, too. When the initial chef, Citronelle alumnus Michael Hartzer, departed last December, his absence was apparent. Luscious memories of his bite-size "cocktail food" (deviled eggs, stuffed olives) and chicken fried in a cast-iron skillet became just that -- memories.
If you recall the place from Day One, chances are you'll be disappointed now. If you've never been, however, you're likely to find a contender for your steakhouse affections. Ray's the Classics is an offshoot of Ray's the Steaks, the Arlington phenom that shook up the meat market almost six years ago with top-quality cuts served at agreeable prices in unglamorous digs. The driving force behind both restaurants is Michael Landrum, still boyish at 41 and easy to spot in his white chef's coat, regardless of whether he's cooking or not. ("Ray" is a nickname bequeathed to him by a former girlfriend.)
What works in Arlington works in Silver Spring. At Ray's the Classics, you'll want to stick with the dishes that help create human traffic jams outside Ray's the Steaks. Crab bisque is a perfect union of cream, abundant fresh crab and sherry. Diver scallops are lavished with sauteed garlic and charred onion. As for the steaks, every one of the cuts of corn-fed beef I've tried has something to recommend it. The New York strip shows nice age, thickness and a bit of fat, while the filet mignon reveals expected tenderness but surprising personality compared with much of the competition. Either entree can be gilded with a brandy-infused mushroom cream sauce for a buck extra, and, as long as you're indulging, you should splurge away. If the seasoning of the "Cajun" rib-eye doesn't register even a tickle on the tongue, the meat itself shows care: Landrum buys mostly prime-grade meat, then trims and ages the stuff himself. If my job didn't compel me to try the full range of the cow, or at least the parts offered here, I'd make a habit of the thick entrecote; the meat, taken from the lean end of the rib-eye, is marvelously tender, marbled and succulent.
Included in the entree price are mashed potatoes, unfortunately bland on two visits, and tasty creamed spinach. Served family-style, they negate the need for more sides, which is just as well in the case of the oddly dry macaroni and cheese. Tucked among the "chef's specialties" is a dish you won't find at Ray's the Steaks: rack of wild boar, a lean and crusty behemoth that deserves its billing. Finely shredded cabbage, mustard sauce and hits of juniper and clove in the meat's seasoning make for great cold-weather eating.
You don't have to be a beef- or boar-eater to appreciate the kitchen, which also does well by seafood entrees. The highlights include a baseball-size portion of crab royale, blessedly free of filler and gilded with a sherry-laced butter sauce, and grilled salmon sweetened with wine-stewed grapes and a sauce of raisins and black pepper. However, the lone vegetarian offering, a towering "double cheeseburger" of grilled eggplant and portobello mushroom, is a sloppy slight that packs in blue cheese, grilled onions and tomatoes but somehow manages to smack mostly of smoke, oil and amateurism.
On the subject of disappointments, the French onion soup I order contains shreds of beef but no cap of molten cheese, and a salad of "vine" tomatoes and "fresh Italian buffalo" mozzarella has all the pizazz of what you might find at 30,000 feet. Further, the service swings from pleasant to just okay. One evening, main courses arrived even as some of my companions were still eating their appetizers. But you'd be hard-pressed to find more of a back bender than Landrum, who dashed out one busy night to fetch some kosher food -- in Rockville -- for a single patron who was under the mistaken impression he could be served such food for a business occasion.
Aesthetically, Ray's the Classics shares its sibling's approach to design. Both are strikingly spare, although the newer of the two restaurants is swankier for its big red sign out front and booths so large that customers appear to disappear between the soaring backs of faux ostrich skin. But the bar in Silver Spring still begs for art -- a mirror, a calendar, anything -- on its bare walls, and the only visual attraction in the sterile main dining room is a wine display.
I take that back. When the coconut cake finds its way to our table, all eyes widen at the size of the frosted mountain. Dolloped with real whipped cream and dreamy to the finish, the dessert is a vestige of yesteryear, a reminder of the Classic I fell hard for a year or so ago.
"No, it's not the restaurant it started out to be," concedes Landrum. He hopes some day to return those cocktail snacks and fried chicken to the menu, but he says he's content right now to feed his grateful neighbors rather than the "status seekers" who descended on the restaurant in its early days. "What's wrong with serving great steaks?" The guy has a point.
Michael Landrum's other restaurants:
Ray's: The Steaks
Ray's: The Steaks at East River
Ray's: The Game
Ray's: The Glass
Ray's: The Catch