Food & Drink

Best chef under fire

Jeramie Smith
Chops Steak Seafood & Bar

Making your way to a specific destination among the tectonically shifting landscapes and storefronts at the K Street Mall can be dizzying for the unprepared. One second, you could be in the clang-banging, ting-tinkering chatter and outdoor heat of the mall, poking in your pockets for a panhandler. The next second, you might glide—whoosh!—through the doors of the elegantly spare, cool and modern downtown steakhouse named, unabashedly enough, Chops.

Chops is one of the new kids on an ever-more-fashionable block. The boy-next-door-handsome 31-year-old chef, Jeramie Smith, presides over Chops, and he has come a long way fast. Before Chops, he whittled out a quiet reputation at the nearby 4th Street Grille, with consistently innovative, fresh California fusion cuisine (it’s not a dirty phrase unless you use it as such).

But recently, some restaurant-biz folks asked him if he’d also like to be in charge of the dinner scene at the new upscale steak-and-seafood joint whose chief rival is Morton’s of Chicago on L Street. That’s like asking an ambitious editor to help create a new daily newspaper in Sacramento, get The Sacramento Bee’s goat and hijack most of its customers to boot. It’s an irresistible challenge.

So, after handling the 4th Street lunch crowd, Smith, mustering a 12-hour day on average, sprints uptown to oversee—and hop into the trenches with—the restaurant team that hopes to severely injure the seemingly immortal Morton’s.

It’s 8 p.m. Friday evening, and the customers are fewer than normal. But you would never know it if you slid off your barstool, or out of your stylish banquette, and looked behind Oz’s curtain at the tumult going on behind the kitchen doors.

If you’ve ever worked in the restaurant business, you might know that it involves a lot of smoke and mirrors. There are some things you can’t—and don’t want to—fake, such as the quality of the food or the agreeability of the atmosphere. But while you, the customer, sit there, coiffed and poised and pretty, sipping your desert-dry martinis (“Just blow the vermouth in the direction of the glass, thanks”), just a few feet away, hidden from view, is a war zone.

Because it’s a steakhouse, it even has certain remnants of a battlefield: raw flesh, blood-soaked clothes and the intense, resolute faces of front-liners determined to get through the next five hours alive.

And if a popular kitchen is a war zone, then the line cooks occupy the Gaza Strip.

There are usually five such brave folks at Chops. Tonight there are only four, so Smith gamely jumps into the line. And tonight, you get to peek behind the curtain, to watch them and the kitchen staff.

First, you pant for more air in the heat. It seems about 20 degrees hotter than the August night. The smiling, efficient crew, however, is inured. Then, you are assaulted by the odors. Some are delectable (freshly baked bread and rosemary) some cloying (the fish of the day), and some off-putting (raw beef). You stop trying and concentrate on the line cooks, who are almost cartoonishly blurred by motion. At first, it seems like they are

cool, like they are keeping it together only because you are watching them. Then you realize they forgot all about you within the first minute. They had to; if one person in the line hesitates for just a moment and loses his rhythm, it’s like the drummer of the marching band ignoring the beat and plowing into the tuba player.

So, the thick, white plates are placed in the hands of Manolo, who handles the broiler. Then, they go to multi-talented Kris, with seemingly eight hands reaching in eight different directions. Then, they’re off to Manuel, who fills in with aplomb wherever needed. Then, Damon gets to do his thing, which might mean adding the appetizer (potatoes are a favorite—it

a steakhouse). Then, they’re off to Eric, who is in charge of salads but who can shuck a mean oyster, too. Jason stands at the end, making sure each meal is as it should be before it heads out through the swinging kitchen doors.

Tonight, Smith fills in wherever needed, slicing a T-bone, blending a sauce or piercing a porterhouse with a huge plume of rosemary. All the while, he chats quietly with his line men, making jokes, asking questions and being a leader—soothing, being strong and helpful, encouraging.

The sensual stimuli of the place—sounds, smells and movement—overwhelms. After about a half-hour in an out-of-the-way corner, just taking it all in, you begin to feel like an autistic child. You must get out.

You turn to escape and catch the dishwasher out of the corner of one eye. The dishes look and smell like meticulously laundered linen. You love that smell. You gulp a big breath of it and leave, exhaling only once you walk back into the dining area.

Once again, you are simply a well-tended customer, happily oblivious to the efforts made on your behalf nearby. You sip your martini, let out a jagged sigh and relax. Your fellow customers are all smiling. The food here happens to be very good. You think, “Of course it is. And they don’t know the half of it.”
1117 11th Street, (916) 447-8900.