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.