Serious red meat

In these lean economic times, expense accounts—for most of us—have gone the way of the dodo. But somebody in Sacramento must be able to afford wining and dining customers still. And Chops is definitely the place to do it, with its signature steaks that range from $22.95 to $35.95. I don’t know how else this restaurant could continue to exist. Unless you’re wealthy, this is not the restaurant you choose as your neighborhood bistro, and there are only so many celebration dinners occurring on any given night.

Chops is the newest entry to the high-end steakhouse market and is the brainchild of 4th Street Grille owners Ron Fleming and Geoff Flynn. It sits in the space formerly occupied by Brannan’s, just a hop, skip and jump away from the Capitol. The restaurant lobby is dominated by an enormous glass-fronted meat locker packed with some impressive hunks of raw beef. But the locker is not just for show. Chops prides itself in serving only beef that has been aged—28 days at 32 degrees. Apparently, the aroma that wafts into the restaurant when the locker door is open is not for the overly sensitive. Like wine and cheese, beef improves with age. Over time, the enzymes in the meat break down the muscle tissue, adding to the cut’s tenderness and flavor. My grilling bible refers to dry aging in cold air as a disappearing art. Dry aging acts to dehydrate the beef, making the steak firmer and more concentrated in flavor. A really sensitive palate might consider the end result a little gamy, but I would say it makes beef more robust tasting.

The restaurant boasts a large patio, which would be pleasant for summer-evening dining. We opted for that first, but we were driven inside after a tense half-hour during which a motor-mouthed stockbroker type spewed obscenities at an astonishing rate. I’m not a big prude, but I didn’t see how my son was going to eat his dinner with his fingers plugging his ears. When we left an hour later, the motor mouth still had not drawn a breath. The staff handled our procession back inside with remarkable grace and finesse and provided just about the best service I’ve had in a year of reviewing Sacramento restaurants.

The restaurant space itself is quite comfortable, with dim lighting and extremely high-backed booths that provide an intimate setting. We were quickly provided with some delicious crusty bread served with an addictive roasted-tomato and garlic spread. We threw dietary caution to the wind and ordered baked oysters Rockefeller ($12.95) as an appetizer. The platter held six fresh oysters topped with spinach, diced bacon, garlic, breadcrumbs and hollandaise. A touch of Pernod added an intriguing hint of licorice and helped to cut the extreme richness of the mixture. Although the topping was substantial, it worked quite well with the slippery sea-tasting oysters.

Chops has a nice selection of old-fashioned classics for those not in the mood for steak, including beef stroganoff ($13.95), slow-roasted organic chicken ($15.95) and fresh king salmon served with a chive hollandaise ($22.95). My husband chose a tender, juicy prime-rib sandwich ($12.95) served with a horseradish drizzle and jack cheese on a house-made roll ($12.95). Most entrees are served with glazed carrots and your choice of a salt-crusted baked potato, regular or garlic fries, mashed potatoes or hash browns.

Chops does serve sides with its entrees, but it also offers a selection of other side dishes that are well worth the extra money. We tried a very grown-up macaroni and cheese made with sharp cheddar ($3.95) as well as creamed spinach ($3.95). This was about as far from mom’s creamed spinach as one could get; it could convert even the most staunch spinach hater. Think barely cooked spinach napped in cream, topped with bacon and shredded Parmesan.

Chops offers prime New York strip, prime top sirloin, porterhouse, filet mignon and rib-eye steaks, as well as veal chops and rack of lamb. If you like to gild the lily, order filet Oscar ($32.95), two filet medallions topped with fresh asparagus, Dungeness crab and béarnaise sauce. Otherwise, you can have your steak plain or topped with one of five sauces for an extra $1.95.

I tried the sirloin ($22.95) and was not disappointed. What came was a huge hunk of meat, lightly charred on the ends but perfectly cooked to the requested medium rare on the inside. I couldn’t possibly have finished it all, but I made a valiant effort nonetheless. The meat was very good indeed. In fact, my only disappointment was that I was too full to try anything from the revamped dessert menu, which included crème brûlée and a peach-and-blackberry cobbler.

For the casual diner, Chops’ prices are a little steep, but the restaurant offers fantastic food nonetheless. Go there for your anniversary, a promotion or just on a gamble that the economy will bounce back.