Back in 2009, rumour had it that Rae and Jerry's would be replaced by a Ruth's Chris steak house. Turns out it was only a rumour -- there never were any negotiations. We still don't have a Ruth's Chris, and although trendoids may sneer, after almost 60 years this old-school institution endures, still holding its own in a sea of small plates, duck confits, truffle oil and pork bellies. It still packs them in, and if you try getting a seat without a reservation, you may end up eating in the lounge, which is not a bad thing, actually. It's popular -- famous, even -- the Winnipeg venue many out-of-town food writers have asked to see.
I've written about Rae and Jerry's before -- snippets about brunch, about its $13.26 daily lunch bargains (Wednesday's pot roast is my eternal favourite), about a best-burger search -- so it came as a surprise to realize I hadn't actually done a full column review in more years than I can remember.
Owner Steve Hrousalas, who has been there for 39 years, doesn't make the mistake of competing on somebody else's ground, and very little has changed over those years. Some think of it as a time warp of the '60s; some consider its unchanging decor of dark wood and red leatherette chairs dated. They miss the point. It isn't dated and it isn't retro either. It's the real deal -- no kitsch, no doodads, just the solid, welcoming comfort of a classic steak house.
Families often have reunions here, because the menu has something for almost everybody. It's certainly been the case whenever my out-of-town relatives have descended en masse -- the carnivores among us can sink their teeth into red meat, and the kosher among us can order fish. Fortunately there are no vegetarians in my clan, because their only choice would be a salad.
The menu is classic steak house, too. Calamari have been added to the appetizers (a bow, perhaps, to Hrousalas's roots), but I've suffered a surfeit of calamari lately, and opted instead for some of the long-term appetizers, which (in my mind, at least) are more typical of the genre. They were excellent and generous buys, at $5.75 each, on an otherwise fairly expensive menu -- moist, tasty chopped liver and tangy pickled herring with sour cream, but I also couldn't resist the luxury of smoked salmon with onions, capers and cream cheese at a relatively moderate $12.75.
The steaks and prime rib cost from $34.25 for an eight-ounce New York cut to $41.25 for a 16-ounce rib steak. They aren't dry-aged, but they are hand-cut, perfectly prepared and very good. My personal preference is the prime rib roast, which I've always found to be the juiciest and most flavourful of the all the cuts. (Prices average $4 less at lunch).
Most of the beef dishes come with their natural juices only, but those who'd like some adornment should try the grenadine of beef -- eight ounces of succulent sautéed tenderloin slices topped by mushrooms and onions. Those who'd like something to really gnaw on should have the meaty barbecued ribs in a tasty and not too goopy sauce ($33.25). And long before posher places caught on to it Rae and Jerry's always had fresh fish on the menu -- salmon, pickerel or halibut -- and our simply grilled pickerel was excellent ($33.25).
As often as not, the meat I succumb to is the spectacular sautéed liver ($32.75). I've had good beef liver in other restaurants, but nowhere else have I found calves' liver -- from Provimi veal, in this case, pale, tender, moist and as good as liver gets. It comes in a gargantuan portion, garnished with bacon and also, if wished (although the menu doesn't mention it), sautéed onions.
Dinners still start with a basketful of irresistible breads from City Bread (they are particularly generous with the butter, too) and include a choice of tomato juice or soup. But although the mains were uniformly delicious, the included extras were inconsistent. One night's thick split pea soup, with wee bits of ham, was hearty and delicious, but another night's vegetable soup tasted mainly of undercooked flour.
The skinny fries are sensational, but the mashed potatoes, although tasty on one visit, needed more salt on another, and were dry and lukewarm on both. The onion salad has never disappointed; the coleslaw has ranged from bland to good; and the daily veggies -- our steamed spinach and green beans -- were unexceptional but OK..
The desserts are all house-made, far more numerous than they used to be, and better. Among them are a smooth, light cheesecake with black cherries; a lovely light and refreshing key lime pie; and a luscious coconut cream pie with white chocolate shavings and a drizzle of chocolate sauce ($7.25 each).
The wine list is also longer and better than it used to be, with 26 by the glass, but Rae and Jerry's usually means cocktails to me, and my tipple, a bloody caesar -- was perfect.
Service was also perfect -- attentive, knowledgeable and really nice. And I'd like to add just one more significant detail: unlike many upscale establishments, where a pepper grinder is offered before you've even tasted your food and rarely ever again, every table at Rae and Jerry's sports a pepper grinder -- a very handsome one at that.