6675 Transit Rd., Lancaster NY 14221
Web: Russell's Steaks, Chops & More
Rating: [learn more]
A wonderfully decorated steakhouse with strong, prompt service and good appetizers, as well as a few decadent menu items. Location an asset to growing suburbs.
Given the prices, meat quality was only decent, plate garnishes/sides were disappointing, and desserts ranged from good to unimpressive. Diners are paying a lot for the environment relative to the food.
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"The strongest components of our ratings are the food quality and value for the dollar, which were not in our view consistently strong enough at Russell's to merit three stars."
First impressions mean a lot, but they're not everything. Take Russell's Steaks, Chops & More, the just-down-the-street sequel to Russell Salvatore's well-known Salvatore's Italian Gardens on Transit Road in Lancaster, similarly designed to give off the air of success from moment one. The original place was known for its statue garden, fancy cars parked outside, and Liberace-era glitzy decor; by comparison, Russell's sits inside the recently opened Salvatore's Grand Hotel, seems to boast a perpetually crowded parking lot, and enjoys the look and feel of a more tastefully decorated venue that's somehow being kept busy in the midst of a tough economy.
Before you even enter the restaurant's dining area, you're gradually eased in through an expansive, open hallway that shares space with the legitimately grand-looking hotel; it's not initially apparent where the hotel's lobby ends and Russell's begins. There's a bar, which has its own large red room, pendant lighting, and television access, while a small but very obvious coat check room sits next to a large counter marked Reservations. It's staffed by a couple of people, plus alternating maitre d's, including Russell Salvatore himself, chatting up old friends and personally walking many of the guests to their tables. Virtually every stop has been pulled out to make the place look both nice and successful, with clear effect: on a Saturday night at 6:30, the several dimly lit dining rooms were all filled to capacity.
Keeping with the theme, the servers at Russell's start to impress patrons almost immediately. Within a moment of seating, leather-bound menus are handed out by a server, and at that point, you may notice that he's not alone: each of the dining rooms appears to have a small squad by its entryway monitoring all of the tables, one person filling empty glasses, another clearing plates, and the primary server coming for orders and to check in on occasion. Everyone seems to be young but dressed well, with a nice balance of crisp, well-rehearsed speech and formal punctuality: orders are taken when all menus on the table have closed, and dishes aren't cleared while people are still eating. On the flip side, the training comes with a little rigidity, as the servers seem ill-equipped to handle deviations: a member of our group wanted to substitute the soup of the day for the one on the specials menu, yet was shut down, and not even offered the option to pay extra for it. Small issues like that aside, the service was very close to "just right."
The food is another story. Our meal began well enough, with a plate of soft, fresh Italian bread that came with three different spreads: pink sweet butter, a lightly salted white butter cream, and a fresh minced olive tapenade. No one would confuse the quality with the bread courses at the area's best restaurants, but we all liked what we got. Soon after our orders were placed, the appetizers arrived; two couples shared the Stuffed Banana Peppers ($12), Maryland Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($12), two Three Onion Soup Au Gratins ($9), and two of Russell's Caesar Salads ($7). Appetizers normally sell in the $10 range, with a handful of items as low as $7, while meat entrees are generally in the $30 and up range, seafood dishes start in the mid-$20s, and a single chicken plate goes for $18. These are fine dining prices, tamed only by a $70 per couple Dining for Two menu, which includes a limited choice of two appetizers, two entrees, scant chef-selected sides, and two desserts. Our table of four went with the Dining for Two option, augmenting it with additional appetizers; we would have left hungry otherwise.
Both the Peppers and the Crab Cakes - neither a part of the fixed price menu - arrived on black triangular plates that had been recently dressed up with sauces and vegetable garnishes. The peppers were unrecognizable as such, striped with sauce and splayed out, while the crab cakes were more tastefully and obviously presented. Yet it was the Peppers that impressed us; we were wowed by the slight spiciness of the Italian sausage, goat cheese, spinach, and bread crumb stuffing, all seemingly cooked perfectly before their questionable plating - we even finished the leftover drips of cheese and sprinkling of field greens. On the flip side, "Jumbo" should never have been included as a descriptor in the name of the crab cakes, even if the crabs had once been giants: expensive for their size, the small nuggets of crustacean meat tasted good, but not special. That said, we noticed that someone at an adjacent table had ordered the $80 "Colossal Two-Pound Lobster Tail," which was jaw-droppingly, possibly jaw-breakingly large - quite different from almost everything we were served.
Russell's soups and salads were good. Normally $7 each, the Caesars arrived topped with attractively sliced parmesan and reggiano cheeses on top, and a smattering of fresh croutons underneath a bed of slightly wilted lettuce and light but adequate dressing. After the salads and soups arrived, our server returned with an electric pepper mill that was almost comically powerful: its motor sounded as if it had the power to grind fingers and pepper alike, dispensing pepper with a rapidity and radius that took us by surprise. After dusting the salads, the pepper was offered, but not taken for our French Onion-styled soups, which didn't need any assistance: their broth was a wonderful balance of slightly sweet, semi-salty, hot, and beefy flavors, with enough crostini, cheese, and fresh onions to satisfy us in every way but for size. Like the crab cakes, the bowls were too small - cup-like mini-crocks, well below the average serving size for a classic French Onion, and normally billed at $9 a piece.
The entrees were hit and miss. In keeping with our steakhouse testing theme, we ordered an eight-ounce Petite Filet Mignon (normally $28) and a Half Rack of New Zealand Lamb (normally $31), while the other members of our group both took the server's advice and went with the Steak ala Russell, twin four-ounce mini-Filets topped with mushrooms and a wine sauce. Comments on the dishes, which we shared, were positive but not universally so: all four of the dishes were generally cooked properly to order, nicely crusted on the outside and yielding on the inside, though one member of our group noted that her twin filets came out differently - one perfect, one overcooked and chewy. We tasted the chewy one; the mushrooms and seasonings were all that saved it from being undesirable. By contrast, the standard Filet was unquestionably cooked properly, but like the other filets, it just didn't impress on meat quality; these might have been the best parts of their respective cows, but we'd be surprised if they were anything more than distantly related to Wagyu or even Black Angus cattle.
The Lamb was a little different. It looked beautiful, with flecks of garlic on its outer crust, and though there wasn't either an offer or a reference to mint jelly, it wouldn't have been needed: the chops were served tender, medium rare to order, in a rosemary veal stock reduction. We found the sauce to be overpowering, rosemary fighting the otherwise good lamb meat for dominance, and only losing that battle in places it hadn't touched. Once again, the chops were small, a point accented by the plate's meager side accompaniments - all of us were unimpressed by the stingy individual vegetable pieces on the plates, there more for color than taste, and the sides of cheddar mashed potatoes or salty, muffin-like bread pudding tasted like they'd been prepped at a factory rather than by hand.
Desserts ranged from fine to good. Enticed by the description, two members of our group initially contemplated the "Creme Brulee Tasting" (normally $8), described on the menu as the chef's "daily selection of different flavors of Creme Brulee." On our visit, however, there was but one flavor - Vanilla Bean - and so one person jumped ship for the Hand-Dipped Chocolate Covered Strawberries (normally $7) instead, receiving and liking three medium-sized white and dark chocolate coated berries. The Creme Brulee was good though predictable, its satisfying vanilla cream interior coated with the right level of caramelized sugar. A third dessert, the "Chocolate Amaretto" (normally $7) was ordered by two of us, arriving as an extremely thin slice of a seemingly once tall cake, with no obvious amaretto flavor; it was good enough, but nothing more than a plain chocolate layer cake with some syrup on top.
Following our meal, our group spent a fair bit of time discussing appropriate ratings for Russell's, with all of the opinions falling within the exact same range: 2.5 or 3 stars, none higher, none lower. The single biggest factor weighing in favor of the higher rating was the service, which while not on the level of Tempo had been consistently prompt and attentive; we also liked the decor, which was appropriate to a modern upscale steakhouse. But the strongest components of our ratings are the food quality and value for the dollar, which were not in our view consistently strong enough at Russell's to merit three stars; it is another example of a restaurant that would merit 2.75 stars if only we issued quarters. What ultimately pushed us to the 2.5-star rating was the pricing: before drinks, our bill was nearly $90 per couple - Buffalo Chophouse league - and we all agreed that Russell's meals weren't close to the ones we'd enjoyed at that venerable city steakhouse; there were varying opinions on its performance relative to other, similarly pricey places. We'd call it a hint under Black and Blue, a hint above E.B. Greens, and roughly on par with Prime 490 and Hutch's. That said, it's a lot better than Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse, an equally pretentious chain that has clearly been outclassed by a smarter local restauranteur. Russell Salvatore has all the elements in place here for another successful venue; all Russell's really needs at this point is more consistently impressive food, and Transit will have a destination-quality steak and seafood restaurant.