I'll also say that I'm picky about steaks. I don't eat them that often, and when I do, I'm kind of "saving myself up" for a really great experience. Because of that, I hate it if I feel that I "wasted" the chance on only an okay steak.
For those who don't know, Harris Ranch is on I-5 about 50% of the way between the Bay Area and LA. It's about 1.5 hours north of Bakersfield. It's located on the freeway, and has easy access (and a HUGE sign) making it a trivial stop.
The place looks like a Disney-fied version of what you might imagine an old-style ranch would have been like. It's clean, it's neat, and it's modern. Those who like classic may be put off, this isn't a 5 star restaraunt. There are two dining rooms, a "formal" one, and a less formal one. I ate in the more "formal" one, which means candles and dim lighting. If you are just there for a steak, I expect the results are similiar in both places. I was after wine and at least a bit of a relaxing environment, so I went more formal. No dress code in either.
I got there around 8 PM on a Sunday, and waited between 10 and
15 minutes for a table. I had obviously hit a peak, because
it trailed off pretty quickly. They have in-house vibro pagers
that you can walk around with while you wait. Since I was
staying the night, the time and the wait didn't bother me.
If you are really just stopping on the way to LA, you might
want to go to the more casual room, where there was no wait.
Besides, since you are going to get back on the 5, drinking
a bunch of wine isn't that great of an idea :-)
FOOD THAT I ORDERED
Menu is (obviously) centered around steak. They have the normal cuts you'd find, but often listed as you'd see them packaged in the store. This was an interesting insight into their clients and marketing for me. No "big city" steak house would have a selection listed under "top round". While I toyed with the idea of just going for New York strip or filet steak, I settled on a porterhouse. For those who don't know, a porterhouse is really two steaks in one, divided by a bone. You get a strip steak down one side, and a filet on the other. If you only have one steak to have at a place, this is a good one to judge them by. It's also one of the trickier pieces of meat to cook, because you have to balance the behavior of both sides. Besides, it's a ton of food, and I hadn't eaten all day :-)
Steaks come with a "starch", several possible potato options or rice, and a veggie. I started with a smoked pepper soup that sounded interesting, but passed on additional sides and salads. I asked if they had Bernaise, in case the steak lacked flavor, but they didn't. I allowed the (very nice) waitress to talk me into a bourbon and wild mushroom sauce instead, on the side.
Menu had a nice variety of salads, sides, some fish, and other
meat. It's a pretty typical steak house, so limited choices if
you don't eat meat. They do have a 100% vegetarian plate, which I
think is proper for all places to offer.
WINE THAT I ORDERED
The wine list was good, but not fantastic. There were several selections that were reasonably priced, and would have gone well with the food. The classic cab section was young (no real fault there, because it usually is) and I was feeling "classic" that night. So, I sprung for the 1990 Opus One. It was silly, but I traded the cost for the "reliability factor" of the wine.
With the soup, I had a glass of Vin Gris de Cigar from Bonny
Doon. A note for fans of this winery, they had a number of
their wines on the list, and reiterated them on their own
two page spread.
FOOD THAT I GOT
The soup was interesting, and in fact I'll probably try it out on my own. It had a nice base (probably beef broth based), and good variety of texture and flavor. It was red both from red bell peppers, and probably some tomatoes. The biggest flaw was that they obviously did not strain the peel/pulp from the peppers, and just whirred it all together. While this approach often works okay, in this case the bitter flavors of the skin (and ribs of the pepper) were left behind. I found one seed as well, which just all left the impression of a less than competent execution of an otherwise really nice idea. A real shame, as it was a good match with the blush wine, and the smokey flavor was subtle enough that I didn't feel my mouth had been blown away for what was to come.
A basket of average, but uninspired rosemaryish sourdough was on
the table. Probably exciting if you aren't from the Bay Area
or LA, both of which have some amazing artisan bakers. I would
have prefered a selection of bread, because you don't always want
a flavored bread (or the same flavor) with something like a steak.
THE STEAK ARRIVES
On to the main deal. The steak was a good, but not overly giant thickness (I'll guess around an inch). It would have been better to hit around an inch and a half or so, but this is kind of difficult to serve to one person. The meat was on a plate with a medium sized baked potato, and some large cut steamed vegetables. Sides for the potato (butter, sour cream, chives) were on a side plate.
Potato was fine, but (as mentioned) not very large, particularly tasty, or interesting. Vegetables were too large cut and understeamed. There seems to be a real confusion at many places between "crisp cooked" and "not cooked enough". It's this kind of treatment of vegetables that leads the French to complain about things cooked "California style". I love crisp steamed vegetables, but cutting them large and then steaming them for 30 seconds isn't how to do it.
The steak was ordered "rare" rather than "bleu" (as the French say) or "blood rare" (as they refer to it as Harris). I just wasn't in the mood for bleu this night. The waitress knew enough to ask what exactly I ment by "rare", which I appriciated. All of this care in the ordering was a bit of a moot point. The steak was cooked unevenly. Parts were rare, parts more than rare, and parts less than bleu. As I said above, a porterhouse is a difficult cut of meat to cook, but this was really spotty. I could have sent it back, but I couldn't really honestly say it wasn't rare -- parts of it were :-) Overall, however, it really didn't detract from the steak, because it wasn't the kind of meat that requires that level of distinction in the cooking.
The meat was *very* flavorful. It had the slightly "gamey" taste that well-aged meat will have, and that some associate with wilder game animals like buffalo. The taste was really a nice treat, as I had been headed towards a bit of a disappointment. I would rate this as probably one of the tastier steaks I've had. The bigger flaw with the meat was that it wasn't all that tender. When I'm paying these prices I either expect prime (which HR does *NOT* advertise, so you can be sure that it isn't) or very good choice quality. In addition to not being tender, it was "blessed" with some largish bits of tendon and other inedibles.
The filet side of the steak was the more cooked of the two, and also was slightly dry. Once again, this is partially the fault of the cut of meat, but I've had porterhouses that have been perfectly cooked on both sides to the exacted ordered level of doneness.
The offered (and ordered) sauce never did show up, but since I wasn't that much in the mood for it in the first place, didn't complain. It also wasn't charged to me.
Since I had wine left, I felt like desert. Now I know it's kind
of fadish, but I do find that bitter chocolate and cabernet do
sometimes go well togther. It took a bit of prying on my
part to get the waitress to tell me if the "chocolate decedance"
listed on the menu was the "dense kind" or the "fluffy kind", because
I certainly didn't want some kind of mousse-like super-sweet milk
chocolate mess. She finally said "oh yeah, it's not sweet at all",
and she was right. It was a well executed basic flourless style
chocolate brick. Went nicely with the dregs of the wine. (Yes, I
did in fact kick the bottle, although I gave one glass to my waitress
because her eyes went so wide when I ordered the bottle).
Basically, the service was fine. It was just inexperienced,
and little things (not knowing anything about wine, missing
parts of orders, not knowing about the style of the desert)
were the only annoyance. It was fast enough, friendly enough,
and not overly pushy. This type of meal doesn't really place
much demands on the staff compared to high-end French or
The steak was $20, and the final price for the meal with wine,
tip, desert, coffee and so on added up to $150. $80 of that
was the wine, so adjust accordingly. Oh yeah, the wine was
Harris Ranch was a nice place to stop, and given my mindset at the time, was just the kind of thing that I needed. For me, it was a chance to relax and unwind, and just think about things for a while. If you are in the "in and out" mindset of a traveller, the environment may not work as well for you, but on the other hand, you probably won't be expecting as much from your steak either.
The steak was fine, and better than chains offer. It wasn't as good as a "big city" steakhouse can do, and the unevenness of it all really the biggest minus. They could have done much better probably. (For example, better cooking of the meat they do have) They also probably come off better if they don't try as hard, or try harder. In a steakhouse atmosphere, I would have been blown away by much of the quality. When they try for the sophisticated look, they are setting expectations just a bit higher than they can hit.
I would return, but probably would just go to the more casual
dining room and order a new york strip. I would stop if
I was in the area and hungry, but would not make a special trip,
nor would I stop if I wasn't hungry just to say that I ate there.
CURRENT STEAKHOUSE RANKING
Note that #2 and #3 *used to be* but are currently unrelated.
Next up: Morton's (SF), and then Izzy's (SF)
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