The cult of steaks

Washingtonians may not know it, but there is a foodie cult claiming new members right under our noses. This quiet movement has neither gastronomic gurus nor bizarre pre-meal rituals, but members do know it by one word: Ray’s.

Since Ray’s the Steaks first opened seven years ago in Arlington, it has grown into a thriving franchise without having to open a single D.C. location. Its allure is akin to the high of finding a designer gown marked down to $5 — Ray’s offers top-flight, butcher-cut meat at bargain prices, with free side orders and dessert to boot.

Until recently, however, there has been an equally compelling deterrent to would-be devotees. Ray’s did not take reservations, leaving patrons to contend with up to three-hour waits. The charming Mexican bistro next door was often mobbed with restless aspirants to a prime table at Ray’s.

That roadblock was recently cleared, however, when Ray’s moved to a larger location in the heart of Arlington. After years of avoiding both Northern Virginia fine dining and steakhouses, I decided it was time to visit.

But how could anyone, save for the savviest beef expert, attempt to rate Ray’s without bias? A simple search of Yelp, Zagat’s and other review websites shows that the typical reaction to the menu ranges from deep satisfaction to total obsession.

“I could eat here every night, and I almost think of doing just that,” one diner raved.

Another fan limited his joyful take to five words: “Ugh. So full. So yummy.”

Rather than decide how large Ray’s seat in the steakhouse pantheon should be, I set out to test if it could live up to the hype. My journey began in front of the host station, which splits the restaurant’s spacious new locale into halves: one carpeted and quiet; the other bare-floored and boisterous.

In both sides, however, the décor is sparse and simple, dominated by dark tones and ceiling fans that resemble airplane propellers. The resulting ambience is half-finished, recalling a banquet hall on the morning before a reception, and makes for a jarring contrast with the expert service.

But diners come to Ray’s for the food, not sights — and the dishes are as eye-catching as they are mouth-watering. Scallops can be served blackened or wrapped in thick-cut bacon, with a dollop of sweet grilled onions and smoky apricot-horseradish chutney.

Tender and unabashedly fatty, with a subtle note of caramel, the bacon is also available on its own or paired with bleu cheese and lettuce. The crab bisque is another famous starter, its cream base matched in decadence by enough fresh lump crabmeat to merit a doubling of its $3.50 price tag.

Ray’s prices cannot be overstated. A typical bottle of wine, for instance, is marked up by as much as 250 percent at most fine-dining spots. At Ray’s, I found two stellar Australian shirazes priced in the $30 range, about $10 more than the retail price.

The wine list is so good you won’t mind that Ray’s does not serve liquor. It does offer several bottled beers. The arrival of new wine director Mark Slater, who comes to Ray’s from Michel Richard’s Citronelle, holds the promise of even more comforting vintages at a reasonable price.

But nothing can compare to the steak. Ray’s offers an array of sauces, toppings and cuts that can confuse a steakhouse novice, but here’s the lowdown on the main attraction.

The New York strip derives from the outside of the steer’s back muscle, making it less tender than a porterhouse or the Chateaubriand. The entrecote is taken from the leanest ribs of the animal, making it lean but tough and not nearly as chewy as the hangar, a complex cut marbled with fat. Ray’s offers all five of those varieties.

I was surprised to be matched instantly with an order that fit my sacrilegious preference for well-done meat — the “picanha,” a type of strip cut usually found only at Brazilian butchers.

Ray’s delivers its version with a jade chimichurri sauce made from cilantro and mashed jalapenos. In a restaurant culture built to avoid additions or substitutions, I was encouraged to ask for more bleu cheese to crumble on twelve ounces of charred South American succulence.

It’s hard to envision many female steak lovers cleaning their plates, but Ray’s also has an open-door policy on doggie bags and extra helpings of sauce. The porcini-mushroom sauce has a thickness cut down by a shot of dry sherry, but the mushroom brandy and peppercorn-cream sauces are the most impressive. One note of failure is the chipotle-based Diablo, spicy enough to overwhelm the steak’s delicate texture and musky flavor.

At most fine steakhouses, the menu is a la carte and side orders of creamed spinach or mashed potatoes can pad the bill. Ray’s blows that method out of the water, serving unlimited gratis portions of both in cast-iron skillets.

The potatoes have a dappled texture that comes only from smashing by hand, but the spinach can be watery and lacks sufficient spice to stand up to its heft on the palate. Perhaps the best free item is Ray’s dessert, demitasse cups of hot chocolate that boasts cinnamon and clove notes.

All of which builds up to the final question: Does it deserve the adulation? Is Ray’s reliable and affordable, and does it offer the traditional presentation to support the legend of its steaks?

The answer is a qualified yes. In these penny-pinching times, a $20 cut of deliriously juicy meat that’s large enough for three meals is certainly worth celebrating — and perhaps even worshiping. Flusher years may have elevated the importance of culinary design and invention, but this recession calls for getting back to basics, and that’s where Ray’s excels.