There have been plenty of stories written about Ray’s the Steaks at East River – many of them predating the restaurant’s opening this month by more than a year. Something about the combination of Michael Landrum and a part of Washington whose only sit-down dining option was Denny’s made it too good to resist. We were eagerly watching and waiting – after all, it’s a short drive from our H Street neighborhood to Minnesota Avenue.
Two weeks ago, Landrum’s commitment to Ward 7 finally came to fruition. The fanfare and ribbon-cutting even drew Mayor Fenty across the Anacostia and got some great media coverage. Of course there were those who were ready to criticize the restaurant and its offerings even before they saw the menu – a situation that prompted Landrum to post a standing media response on Don Rockwell.
Ray’s the Steaks at East River (Landrum told Tim Carman that the name changed from Ray’s the Heat as “a signal to that community that they’re getting my A property”) is a short walk from the Minnesota Avenue Metro stop on the Orange line. It’s about a fifteen to twenty minute drive from Capitol Hill. It’s not exactly a dining destination, which should tell you exactly who Landrum wants to serve on a daily basis (hint: it’s not the people who are tired of waiting for a table in Courthouse).
Even so, I couldn’t wait to check out the newest Ray’s to see how it measures up with its Arlington counterpart. So I gathered three of my co-workers and we took a ride. Our experience after the jump.
First things first: the food is GOOD. I mean really good…Ray’s the Steaks good. Landrum has taken some of his greatest hits from his other restaurants (Ray’s the Steaks, Ray’s Hell Burger, and Ray’s the Classics) and added to them with a menu that offers chili, soups, sandwiches, and even half-smokes for lunch and dinner. The sides include french fries (regular and sweet potato), a fresh vegetable of the day, a garden salad, cole slaw and “all-day greens with smoked turkey necks.”
At our table, we tried to sample a wide variety of dishes. A cup of the crab bisque, a bowl of the chili and a pair of salads started us off well – though the rich, meaty chili was the obvious standout among them. It had a lightly sweet tomato flavor that begged to be soaked up with the complimentary jalapeno cornbread that was served to the table (with soft, spreadable butter, I’m pleased to report).
From there, we moved onto our entrees. I couldn’t help myself – I wanted to see what Landrum’s take on a half-smoke would taste like. Big surprise – it was a salty, smoky treat with a casing that broke with a satisfying snap. When I asked about its origin, I was told that the sausages are prepared for Ray’s by their meat purveyor to Landrum’s specifications. In other words, these are the half-smoke version of the Hell Burger…which means you need to try them.
Others at my table tried the center-cut top sirloin and found themselves marveling at just how tender and tasty it was. The fact that Ray’s does steaks well isn’t exactly breaking news…but it’s nice to see that the restaurant is delivering on Landrum’s promise of bringing his “A” game. A pit beef sandwich, one of the daily specials, didn’t quite deliver on its slow-smoked promise but was still tasty and gone all too quickly.
Those who know Landrum from his other establishments won’t be surprised to know that he’s continued his policy of reasonable price points for gargantuan portions. People who were ready to condemn Landrum for bringing cloth napkins (and the assumed markup that goes with them) to the neighborhood would do well to look at the menu pages here. Two substantial half-smokes with a pair of sides and a jalapeno cornbread starter are $6.95 (add a dollar for chili and cheese – it’s worth it). A six-ounce petite top center-cut sirloin with sides is only $10.95. You really have to go out of your way to pay steakhouse prices here – and a little bit of restraint will reward you with a tasty lunch (or two) of leftovers afterwards.
As you might expect, there are still some kinks to be worked out on the service side. Our server seemed to be stretched a bit thin, resulting in pacing issues. The bisque and chili were served after our tablemates were already halfway into their salads, and both were lukewarm – indicating that they had been waiting for us. A brandy mushroom cream sauce that one of the steak-eaters had ordered never materialized (though the Bearnaise was delicious). And it took a few requests to find out just where those half-smokes were coming from – though the answer was gratifying and well worth the persistence. But Landrum has indicated that he’s got additional staff from the local community who are currently undergoing training at his other restaurants, so it’s probably only a matter of time before the situation is improved.
It was great to see Ray’s the Steaks off to such a strong start at East River. The dining room – with its faux-tin drop ceiling, stylish fans and framed albums on the walls – was almost full throughout our lunch, and I heard more than one person talk about how many times they had already eaten there in the previous two weeks. Ray’s is well on its way to becoming the kind of neighborhood institution that Landrum envisioned from the start.