A welcome change for Ward 7 -- But the latest Ray's needs beefing up

Ray's the Steak at East River
Filet Mignon with Sweet Potato Fries and Cole Slaw (Scott Suchman)
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, August 8, 2010

The T-bone at dinner costs $21.95, and it comes with a choice of two sides and a dash of self-promotion. ("Hand-Carved Fresh Daily to the Most Exacting Standards," reads the menu.) Except for some album covers and a few mirrors, the walls are bare. With the check come dice-size bites of that all-American sweet, a Rice Krispies Treat.

Dedicated carnivores know where this is going. Michael Landrum has whipped up another steakhouse. Like his first, Ray's the Steaks in Arlington, this one bucks the image of a place you have to save up for, or where you must shell out $9 extra to have a baked potato with your $40 filet mignon (see: Morton's).

But unlike the original Ray's, whose success prompted a move up the street two years ago to larger quarters, the new Washington offshoot, the 66-seat Ray's the Steaks at East River, was custom-tailored for its neighbors. There's chicken on this gently priced menu, for instance. And those album covers on the wall come from the owner's personal collection; some of the artists, such as jazz great Sonny Rollins, have a link to the District. Also different from the first: The April launch of the East River branch was heralded by a ribbon-cutting attended by the mayor.

Like Redskins playoff wins, restaurants offering table service in Ward 7 are rare.

Which leads to an interesting assignment for anyone reviewing the new arrival. Do you compare it with No. 1, which is more than double the size and comes with an award-winning sommelier? Or with the general meat market, including the well-financed corporate brands? With the other places to eat in East River, most of which are fast-food joints? By my count, there's just one other sit-down establishment: Denny's.

For Landrum, Ray's the Steaks at East River is more than just another restaurant in an expanding empire. He chose to open in an underserved, low-income market in part, he says, to "make as much of a real difference in people's lives as possible."

That's a noble aim. And, simply because it offers food that doesn't taste as if it had been created in a factory, Ray's the Steaks at East River is reason for applause, if not an ovation.

This is a generous and, for the most part, thoughtful restaurant. The door might be opened by a greeter posted outside. Meals are preceded by pull-apart rolls and/or corn muffins freckled with jalapeño and sometimes warm from the oven. Even the sandwiches (burgers, crab cakes, pulled pork, grilled vegetables) come with a choice of two sides. Notice the ketchup bottles on the tables? They are set upside down, thus easier to use.

In these first months, however, what I wanted most was a more consistent kitchen and servers with more focus.

Landrum probably is best known for serving President Obama not once, but twice, at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington (so popular it spawned Hell Burger Too, adding game burgers and waiters to the recipe). Yet my inaugural experience with the Presidential Burger at East River was a bust. What I got was a less-than-White-House-worthy sandwich: a dry and crumbly beef patty topped with two slices of pepper Jack cheese that smacked of having been retrieved from the coldest part of the fridge. Weeks later, I upgraded to the Crazy Burger, which starts with the half-pound Presidential patty and piles on bacon, two kinds of cheese, house-made chili and (don't let your cardiologist see you eating it) a split half-smoke sausage. The combination is a primal, wicked pleasure. Like it hot? Up the fire with the "piranha" sauce, fueled with jalapeño and cilantro.

The filet mignon is a pleasant surprise, in part because my preference is for meat on the bone, and this soft, juicy fist of beef, deeply striped from the grill, ends up being my favorite cut at East River. It bested both a flat-tasting T-bone and the smoked prime rib, the latter of which launched a debate among my companions, half of whom thought the thick and rosy meat smacked of liquid smoke. I liked its pleasant chew and beefiness.

It took several visits before I warmed to the signature smoked-then-fried North East D.C. half-chicken (plus an extra drumstick). The third time revealed the charm: The bird was crisp and golden on the outside, succulent with a hint of smokiness beneath the skin. The entree comes with a hot sauce that some customers obviously have found explosive. "Taste it first," a server cautions. "I'll bring you something else if it's too hot." The accent makes the top of my head itch and my tongue beg for relief. Thai chilies mixed with chipotle, vinegar and tomato will do that. I dig it, and keep it.

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