Politi­cos’ beef

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Rob DeWalt

One of the most glo­ri­ous odes to Amer­i­can steak can be found in Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad, in which the author laments the poor prepa­ra­tion of beefy good­ness dur­ing his trav­els in Europe and ex­presses his long­ing for home­land steak, served “hot and sput­ter­ing from the grid­dle; dusted with fra­grant pep­per; en­riched with lit­tle melt­ing bits of but­ter … the pre­cious juices of the meat trick­ling out …”

Since A Tramp Abroad’s pub­li­ca­tion in 1880, not much has changed about Amer­i­can at­ti­tudes re­gard­ing good steak, al­though an ar­gu­ment could be made that the steak lex­i­con has lost a bit of its flour­ish in the last 130 years. What was once, in Twain’s words, “a town­ship or two of ten­der, yel­low­ish fat grac­ing an out­ly­ing district of this am­ple county of beef­steak” is now sim­ply called “good mar­bling,” which, in its se­man­tic brevity, makes this beloved culi­nary at­tribute sound more like a well-ex­e­cuted bird call. Still, one bite of an a la carte 16-ounce prime rib-eye at The Bull Ring is enough for any present-day car­ni­vore to re­vive Twain’s de­scrip­tors.

Since mov­ing to Washington Av­enue about 15 years ago, The Bull Ring con­tin­ues to lure tourists, lo­cals, and politi­cos with its prom­ise of de­li­cious, hearty fare, an agree­able at­mos­phere that wel­comes both the for­mal and the ca­sual — and a friendly, at­ten­tive staff.

I en­joyed a per­fectly pre­pared and ex­pertly served medium-rare rib-eye (red­dish-pink and warm in the cen­ter) dur­ing din­ner in the ca­sual bar area. A gen­er­ous side of creamed-spinach gratin was the very def­i­ni­tion of creamy, prop­erly sea­soned, and not gritty, but an overly thick layer of gummy, oil-slicked ched­dar had to be re­moved be­fore dis­cov­er­ing the spinach’s sub­tle graces.

An ap­pe­tizer of but­ter-drenched, pip­ing-hot es­car­got stuffed into firm, tooth­some cooked but­ton-mush­room caps was a joy­ous ode to the lowly snail. The leftover, slightly gar­licky but­ter made great sop­ping liq­uid for gratis, ho-hum crusty bread. If you wish to par­take of the grape, an eclec­tic, Cal­i­for­nia-heavy wine list of­fers bot­tles from $30 to $300, and there are am­ple by-the-glass se­lec­tions rang­ing from $8.50 to $14.

My din­ner part­ner’s fish and chips con­sisted of meaty, flaky had­dock en­robed in soggy bat­ter with sweet-pickle tar­tar sauce and crisp-ten­der, lightly salted, clean-tast­ing hand-cut fries. The chips were chip­per; the fish was a flop, thanks en­tirely to its greasy bat­ter wet suit. On a lunch visit a few days ear­lier, my server told me that none of the desserts were made in-house. I be­lieve him. At din­ner, a plain cheese­cake with chunky straw­berry sauce tasted like cafe­te­ria fare that had picked up un­wel­come fla­vors from its sa­vory re­frig­er­a­tor com­pan­ions.

I shared lunch with a col­league in the Ring’s main din­ing room, which, un­like the ca­sual bar area, is adorned with white linens and cush­ioned, green-grey horse­shoe booths. At night, it feels like a dimly lit, cozy des­ti­na­tion for a semi-fancy meal. Dur­ing the day, how­ever, a layer of dust on the booths’ backs, wilt­ing poin­set­tias, and fin­ger­print-smudged glass­ware at my ta­ble made the ex­pe­ri­ence feel more like an im­promptu Christ­mas brunch at a road­side coun­try diner. Our server was af­fa­ble, but when I pointed out the dirty wa­ter glass, he dis­ap­peared for five min­utes be­fore re­mov­ing it.

My a la carte pe­tite filet of prime beef came per­fectly medium rare, coated with a light crust from the fire and siz­zling on a hot plate. Its veg­etable brethren vexed me, though: four sliv­ers of cold, nearly raw red bell pep­per and two small flo­rets of broccoli cooked to baby-food soft­ness. A gen­er­ous ac­com­pa­ni­ment of chunky mashed pota­toes brought con­so­la­tion, but I would have pre­ferred more in­spired veg­eta­bles. My part­ner’s BLT on toasted sour­dough swiftly be­came a BL. The toma­toes were pink and mealy. Hand-cut fries swooped in to save the day, but I couldn’t help but think that im­ported, vine-ripened toma­toes, how­ever non-lo­cal and outof-sea­son, would be a good fit for this un­abashedly non-sus­tain­able menu. If you dare to serve a BLT — es­pe­cially in lob­by­ist-heavy Santa Fe, in Jan­uary, for al­most ten bucks — at least do it with some pride and con­vic­tion.

An early-af­ter­noon meal at the bar was lunchtime re­demp­tion. The Ring’s sig­na­ture Bull Burger (hold the tomato), crafted from chopped sir­loin steak, is one of down­town’s best beef-de­liv­ery de­vices. Again, it was juicy and served a per­fect medium-rare. With melted Swiss, and served with those mem­o­rable hand-cut fries, this burger speaks to The Bull Ring’s abil­ity to do beef right at all costs. Un­for­tu­nately, those costs, which of­ten trans­late into steep menu prices, cur­rently in­clude a lack of fo­cus on some non-beef menu items and a main din­ing room that could stand to shed a few glar­ing blem­ishes.

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