Photos by Mathew Sumner.
When the hankering for a steak strikes, you don't want to mess around. It's a primal need that means business. Which is why I enjoy the whole white tablecloth experience that usually surrounds what is quite the carnivorous act. It's kind of like wearing elbow length opera gloves at a crawfish boil. Then again, if you're tucking into a $43 steak, a little polish is called for.
I've eaten at ~HARRIS' RESTAURANT~ four or five times over the years, and truth be told, the more I learn about food, the guiltier I feel about eating a steak there. We're talking corn-fed Mid-western beef, baby. Michael Pollan, forgive me, for I have sinned and I will probably sin again, but goddamn the steak is good here. It's up to all of us to eat consciously, sustainably, locally, organically, humanely, the whole lot. But every once in a while you want to be bad. So if you're gonna do it, you better do it in style.
The dining room here has always transported me somewhere else--for some reason it makes me think of being on a set on Giant: it feels big and sprawling and Texan, with some cowboy touches, like the murals of grazing cattle and large chandeliers that look like they should be oil-lit. You can start the evening in the Pacific Lounge, taking in the live jazz trio (Thursday through Saturday) over a cocktail at the turn-of-the-century mahogany bar. But I definitely recommend eating in the main dining room (The Van Ness Room) if it's your first time. Welcome to booth country.
First things first: you need a drink. I slip right into the Eagle Rare Manhattan, a single barrel bourbon whiskey aged 10 years (Harris' gets to pick their exclusive barrel) paired with Vya sweet vermouth and Peychaud's bitters ($12). It comes with a little sidecar: an additional splash that stays chilled in a mini-carafe resting in a petite half-barrel filled with ice. Genius. Someone who likes to drink definitely came up with this presentation.
While you're sippin', you'll get some complimentary toast points that come with a spread of white cheddar cheese, port wine, and a touch of cream cheese. It reminds me of one of faux-fancy spreadable cheeses (care for some Rondelé, darling?) but look what got scarfed down pretty quickly. Tonight is all about guilty pleasures.
The menu is simple, as it should be: I usually go for the classic wedge ($9.50)--crisp, cold, just the right amount of dressing (it says chef's choice, but I like to insure it's a creamy blue). You can also do a Caesar ($9.50), mixed greens ($8.50), or the baby spinach salad with apple wood-smoked bacon, pine nuts, mushrooms, and a slightly out-of-place soy vinaigrette ($10.50). You know, your last chance for vegetables. And no, don't look for the word organic anywhere on the menu, I didn't see it (although the chef reportedly buys local vegetables).
I once got the steak tartare ($17.50)--it's not prepared tableside, and didn't come topped with a raw quail egg, which I tend to prefer (although they do prepare the tartare with egg in the kitchen). No matter, you're getting more than enough beef here. About that beefâ¦ I'm usually a sucker for the rib eye ($43), but I left that to the gentleman this particular evening. The lady (yes, me) opted for the prime rib ($37, or $46 for the bone-in executive cut)--you can also specify thick cut or put your pinky up and ask for English (thinly sliced).
So, first: the rib eye. I couldn't believe it, but it came out overcooked. First time I'd ever had that happen here. After a few bites we sent it back, with nary an eyebrow raised, just a sincere apology from the server. It's always a weird moment to send food back, but dag, when you're shelling out $43 for a steak, you want that thing exactly as it should be: a true medium rare. You want it bleeding all over the goddamn plate.
When round two landed, the verdict was declared thusly: "It was the most disappointing steak ever, to the best steak ever." Amen. Let's hear it for a salty, fatty, juicy steak, with perfect grill marks (the mark of the beast!) and a dollop of compound butter on top. The beef here has such a satisfying flavor. (Shhhh, Mark Bittman, I'm enjoying my corn-fed beef!) Hmmm, how the hell do you describe it? Beefy, that's how! But truth be told, it's the kind of steak you should only get once a year, if that. (I've already marked it on my calendar for 2010.)
Meanwhile, my prime rib was pure beef delight (skyrockets in flight): a pretty pink with that wonderful salty exterior you get with prime rib, and I couldn't stop dipping bites into the fluffy and creamy horseradish. The backup singers of garlicky creamed spinach and buttermilk mashed potatoes drowned out any guilty voices in my head, and insured I had enough butter in my arteries for two weeks. I had to wave the flag when I was about halfway through though--let me tell you, I had one hell of a sandwich the next day.
For those who don't want to beef out, there are dishes ranging from seafood to chicken to lamb chops, plus some old school numbers like steak Diane, or a whole lobster.
Did we make it to dessert this time? Uh, no.
So in the ultimate classy move, Harris' removed the $25 corkage from our bill, I imagine because of the steak snafu. They have a nice enough wine list here with plenty of reasonable options, but I wanted to open a special nero d'avola, Donnafugata Contessa Entellina Mille e una Notte, of which my dining companion noted "That wineâ¦ it fits me tighter than my underwear." I couldn't have said it better.
There's a lot of business that goes down at Harris', from business business in the tufted booths to romantic business in the fireplace room, and I've even seen families with well-behaved children here, too. Service is usually on point and sometimes even extraordinary (you can tell some folks have been working here for a long time). Although the hostess was a little, oh, how shall we say it? Hmmm, how about not in a hosting frame of mind?
Anyway. Don't miss a look at the proud window o' beef that has been nauseating non-beef eaters for years. In the case you can see rows of loins--they're aged for three weeks at 33 degrees. It keeps the beef from freezing, and instead creates that marvelous marbling that encases the beef. Both the Harris' Steak (a bone-in New York) and the porterhouse are dry aged, the rib eye isn't. And you can actually buy meat at the butcher counter in case you want to cook it yourself.
Harris' has some good history, so here you go: Mrs. Ann Lee Harris was married to Jack Harris many moons ago when he ran the Harris' Ranch (AKA cow-schwitz) in Coalinga. When Jack Harris passed away in 1981, Ann Lee moved to San Francisco and opened her own restaurant in the renovated premises of the old Grison's Steakhouse (it dates back to 1934). You can see a portrait of Jack above the fireplace--look for the plaque that says "Boss." Harris' opened its doors in May 1984. So to Harris' I wish a very happy 25th anniversary!
2100 Van Ness Ave.
Cross: Pacific Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94109