STEAK HOUSES: THE FAT & THE LEAN

The Beef Industry Council, whatever that is, has just sent me a little booklet called "The Lighter Side of Beef." Its avowed purpose is to help me see beef in a new light. Light, it turns out, is the operative word; the booklet explains that beef is really not as fattening as I thought.

As proof, they encourage me to consider dishes like "breakfast beef with melon" (beef calories, 111; total calories, 438) and "steak and citrus salad" (beef calories 196; total calories 419). If you are wondering why the calorie counts are so low, the answer is simple: You only get two or three ounces of beef. "Today's health-conscious customers," claims the booklet, "prefer smaller portions of beef."

They have definitely sent this book to the wrong customer. I cannot conceive of any reason why a person would prefer a smaller portion of beef. When I go out to eat steak I demand three things: good steak, plenty of it, and doggie bags that don't leak. In my house happiness is cold steak in the refrigerator, and I love to go home with a bag clutched in my hand, secure in the knowledge that there will be a bone to gnaw on in the morning.

The doggie bag is important, because steak lovers are almost forced to go out to get good meat. The sad truth is that restaurants can get better steak than you can. The best of them not only have secret sources of beef, but also age the meat themselves.

But where should you go to claim your steak? Over the past few weeks I visited all of the city's top-flight steak houses: at each I ordered a salad, potatoes, onion rings and a Porterhouse (in my opinion meat tastes better with bones). All of them, of course, do offer other things, but only the sort of people who prefer smaller portions of beef would order fish in a steak house.

Los Angeles' newest steak house, Hy's in Century City, doesn't look like one: It is far too pretty. It is far too quiet too: You can actually have a civilized conversation while you watch your steak being grilled on that ridiculously rococo grill ensconced in its own little glass room. If this were not enough to ruin the steak house atmosphere, there is the matter of the service, which is entirely too solicitous. This is a place that actually makes you feel pampered.

If you order a salad, they roll a cart over and toss it at the table. This can have its down side: each time I tried the Caesar salad the proportions were all off, resulting in a thin, over-garlicked dressing. There were other disappointments here too: the cheese bread is soft and goopy, and the potatoes come baked, twice-baked or fried into strings. It's hard to ruin a baked potato, but this twice-baked concoction comes close. (There are also potato pancakes, for an extra $4.50). The vegetables aren't particularly impressive, either. And sadly, they don't serve onion rings. But then, once you've tasted the steak, you probably won't care.

The steak is superb--aged into flavorful chewiness, perfectly grilled over kiawe charcoal and so delicious that it's hard to leave enough to take home. But what you do take home is wrapped in both foil and plastic before being put into the doggie bag. I think it's the tastiest steak you can get in Los Angeles; it is also one of the most reasonable. The 20-ounce Porterhouse, with potatoes, is $21.50.

Hy's, 10131 Constellation Blvd., Century City, (213) 553-6000. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner Monday-Saturday. All major credit cards.

Ruth's Chris is my other choice for a great Los Angeles steak, albeit one that is entirely different than that served at Hy's. The meat here has less texture; it is tasty and buttery and extremely soft. The Porterhouse is served for two ($38), three ($57), or four ($76), and it comes to the table sizzling deliciously on a hot platter. It is a hugely thick slab of perfectly cooked meat. Unless you and your friends are enormous eaters, you should have enough to take home. They wrap it well.

Potatoes are taken seriously at Ruth's Chris. Spuds come in seven varieties, all good (and all around $3). The salad's not much to shout about, but the onion rings are; I once watched a group of sophisticated adults squabble over who was going to get the last one on the plate.

Ruth's Chris is neither as refined as Hy's--nor as raucous as The Palm. It is a nice looking, down-to-earth steak house where dedicated carnivores should discover true happiness.

Ruth's Chris Steak House, 224 S. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (213) 859-8744. Open daily for lunch and dinner. All major credit cards. My inclination is not to like the Palm: It's too loud, reservations are taken so lightly that I always wonder if they even bother to write them down, and the waiters can be brusque to the point of rudeness. But somehow the place always charms me in the end; how can you hold a grudge when you are surrounded by so many people having such a wonderful time?

There's no menu, but the waiters will obligingly list what they've got. The lobster, they are sure to remind you, costs $12 a pound, (and they don't go in for lightweight lobsters). They only have two kinds of steak, and neither has a bone. The New York is $21, and it comes unadorned. It's a good piece of meat, and they cook it to perfection; if you have any left over, they wrap it in foil before putting it into the doggie bag. The steak a la stone--sliced steak served on a mountain of grilled onions and pimentos--was lamentably tough the last time I had it; it costs $23. There are excellent cottage fries and very good onion rings of the stringy sort. There is also a notable cheesecake.

The Palm, 9001 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 550-8811. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, for dinner daily. All major credit cards. "Do you usually serve the soup after the entree?" Charles Bronson was asking as he finished his shrimp salad. The waiter at the Pacific Dining Car went trotting off to find the forgotten soup, leaving my table feeling somewhat less insulted about the quality of the service we'd been receiving. We had waited for our table, waited for our menus, waited for our food.

The steak is worth waiting for; not much else is. The Caesar salad was merely greens in creamy garlic dressing. The bread in the basket was sort of crushed, and the T-bone (they don't offer a Porterhouse anymore), which was good and big and nicely cooked, was accompanied by limp, greasy French fries and ratatouille that looked as if it had been cooking since last year. The Dining Car potatoes ($5), a sort of hash with peppers, were not a great delight.

But the crowning moment came later. I asked for a doggie bag; "Here," said the busboy, graciously handing me a paper bag. I stuffed my steak into it, and took it back to the office where it sat leaking all afternoon. By the time I was ready to go home the bag was so soggy that when I picked it up the steak came shooting out the bottom. The result: the better part of a $29 steak was left lying on the floor.

Pacific Dining Car, 1310 West 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 483-6000. Open 24 hours every day. Mastercard and Visa accepted. This restaurant made me mad. The Westside Broiler serves prime meat, and they grill it over mesquite, but somehow they act as if they just don't care what they're doing. The decor is a little shabby and the waiters wander around as if they're asleep. When I asked our waiter how large the Porterhouse ($26) was, he said 12 ounces. I said I thought it sounded sort of small; he insisted that he was correct. (Later he admitted that he was wrong; the steak is actually 20 ounces.)

No matter how big it may have been, the meat had very little flavor of its own. It tasted primarily of seasoning salt, and while it was rare on the inside, it was rare on the outside, too. It came with two small broiled potatoes and two almost burned onions. The restaurant, however, does a great steak to go. I left so much of the meat that the waiter tried to put it into a bag, struggled for a minute and then put it into a foam plastic box.

Westside Broiler, 116 N. La Cienega, Beverly Hills, (213) 655-8686. Lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily. All major credit cards.

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