Butter-anointed meats give a sheen to Ruth's Chris

Most any chef will tell you, everything is better with butter, and at Ruth's Chris Steak House they take that principle to heart — yours.

They're upfront about it, too. "Our steaks are served sizzling in butter," states the menu. "Specify extra butter or none."

With or without butter, the steaks and chops at Ruth's Chris are simply superb. But extra butter? Heaven forbid! A river of it runs freely through the crevices of the rib-eye steak ($28.95). Plump lamb chops ($31.95) and a portly veal chop ($29.95) preen under its glossy veil. Crab cakes ($12.95) and barbecued shrimp ($9.95) are swimming in it. Butter cloaks the green beans almondine ($5.25) and pools amid the mashed potato peaks ($4.95).

Not that I'm complaining about the butter. On the contrary, I'm too busy swabbing the puddle of buttery meat juices on my empty plate with the most delicious shoestring fries ($4.95); too intent on dunking crusty, potato bread in a barbecue sauce heady with garlic, herbs, Tabasco, Worcestershire and lemon juice.

Wretched excess some might say, but I'd reserve that epithet for fat, limp asparagus ($7.95) burdened with hollandaise when what they really need is a dose of Viagra.

"Be careful, the plate is very hot," announces the waiter, somewhat unnecessarily, since only moments before he had created a dramatic pillar of flame in the staid dining room by setting fire to the steak au poivre ($32.95), a juicy, peppercorn-crusted New York strip.

Hot plates are a Ruth's Chris trademark; even the ones not flambéed tableside. The prime, well-marbled steaks and chops are cooked in an 1,800-degree broiler, then transferred to 400-degree plates, so that they are still sizzling when they reach the well-padded table. Remarkably, your meat arrives just as requested, which means the medium lamb chops ($31.95) are a uniform pink inside and the medium rare rib-eye is warm in the center but still red.

You do well to put your money where the meat is. The boneless double chicken breast ($17.50) lavished with lemon butter and oozing creamy herbed cheese seems like overwrought banquet fare. Some butter might have helped the "catch of the day," a rather dry halibut ($24.95) draped in mushy strawberry, raspberry and blueberry salsa that resembled spa cuisine.

The Ruth's Chris chain's New Orleans roots are evident in the lush seafood gumbo, a spicy soup ($5.75 bowl/$3 cup) thick with shrimp, crabmeat, andouille sausage and rice. The spunky, mustard-laced, Creole remoulade, another Big Easy classic, works better as a sauce for shrimp ($9.95) than for Dungeness crab cocktail ($11.95). Good as it is, it can't salvage tough and tasteless, deep-fried crawfish tails ($8.95).

Everything on the menu is priced à la carte, but most entrees will easily satisfy two, and family-style sides of potatoes and vegetables are enough for four. Sharing is encouraged, which helps keep the bill within the realm of the possible for those on a budget instead of an expense account. There is a kids menu, too, which may explain why so many families turn up on weekends.

The restaurant's design is commensurate with the consumption of 30-buck steaks and pricey cabernets (though the exhaustive wine list offers a world of choices in every price range). As sumptuously wood-paneled as a Fortune 500 boardroom, the two-story space is connected by a staircase that winds around a towering wine cellar. Upstairs the long baronial sweep of dining room is cleverly partitioned for coziness but too awkwardly lit to achieve much warmth. Overstuffed, brass-studded leather furniture fills the lounge downstairs where two small private dining rooms handle the overflow on busy nights.

Unlike Ruth's Chris in downtown Seattle, the Bellevue branch is open for lunch as well as dinner. The midday menu offers soups, sandwiches, salads, scaled-down steaks and a burger. Most entrees include fries or a vegetable. Salads are curiously humdrum, including the "black and blue," ($14.95), a blue cheese-dressed pile of iceberg lettuce sparsely populated with celery, pecans and cherry tomatoes, garnished with blackened beef tenderloin medallions and soggy frizzled onion rings.

Plumb the depths of the boozy, buttery lobster bisque ($6.75 bowl/$3.50 cup) and your reward is sweet morsels of lobster meat. Ruth's burger ($8.95) is the booby prize: overcooked, with little juice to moisten the heavy bun, it cries out for a dollop of remoulade to kick it up a notch, as Emeril would say.

Haven't sinned enough by meal's end? A wedge of dense-as-fudge "chocolate sin cake" will send you further down the road to perdition than crème brûleé, cheesecake, or even banana cream pie (all $5.95).

Don't see what you want on the lunchtime card? Make your wishes known. The friendly staff is trained to respond to customers' whims, and that is part of what makes dining here worth the price. The rest of it is all about the steaks.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Ruth's Chris Steak House

565 Bellevue Square, Bellevue, 425-451-1550




Reservations: recommended

Hours: lunch daily 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday 4:30-10 p.m., Sunday 4:30-9 p.m.; happy hours weekdays 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close.

Prices: lunch appetizers $3-$9.95, entrees $8.95-$24.95; dinner appetizers $4.75-$12.95, entrees $29.50-$33.95; sides $4.95-$7.95, desserts $3.95-$5.95.

Wine: The exhaustive list, as thick as a filet mignon, offers a world of choices in every price range, including nonalcoholic sparkling French cider.

Parking: free in Bellevue Square garage.

Sound: Enjoy normal conversation at well-spaced tables. Full bar/all major cards/no smoking permitted/no obstacles to access.