David Ralic knew that opening an independent steak house in a tiny storefront space in a dry town, entailed some risk. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old operating partner, fulfilling a dream, did just that when he launched Ralic’s in downtown Haddonfield last June.
“There aren’t many privately owned steakhouses around, and for good reason,” says Ralic, a Cherry Hill native. “The cost of running one without a liquor license is high. That’s why people told me it was going to be tough.”
The first challenge was outfitting the 28-seat dining room. “My experience is that steak houses are all dark wood and leather and libraryesque,” he says. “Doing that in this small space would be dungeon-like.” Instead, he went for what he calls the “feminine steak house look, like [Philadelphia’s] Barclay Prime”—light-wood floors, cream-colored walls and a stunning accent wall of variably cut white travertine. Wooden shutters, a leather-like panel above the windows and a crystal chandelier provide reference points to the traditional steakhouse.
Ralic’s initial chef left two months after the restaurant opened and was replaced by sous chef Keith Laskowski, who had served as sous chef in larger restaurants like Sweet Vidalia in Beach Haven, Cork in Westmont and the Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City. Laskowski, 30, who has been ill and on hiatus of late, says he enjoys working in a more intimate setting. “It really feels like you’re cooking for each individual customer,” he says. “Like you’re cooking for family. Maybe a little larger family, but not 400 people.”
Shuffling the deck doesn’t seem to have done any harm. The first chef insisted that a steak house should focus strictly on steaks. With Laskowski in charge, I was happy to find a fish entrée as a special. (Laskowski said he is developing a fish entrée and a pasta of the day.)
Steaks are still pivotal, and Ralic’s are mostly superior. (They better be. Prices, too, are top drawer.) The tastiest cut we tried was the 12-ounce New York strip au poivre ($42). Equally good were the buttery fingerling potatoes and garlicky sautéed spinach that came with the steak. The 10-ounce filet mignon ($38), cooked exactly as ordered, was sweetly tender and pink inside. The menu also offers a “filet Oscar” that tops the meat with good béarnaise sauce but a mere smattering of lump crabmeat—a questionable value for the $10 surcharge. The 24-ounce porterhouse ($44) was a bit disappointing. On one side of the bone, the filet mignon was lean and delicious; on the other, the New York strip was marred by a thick strip of gristly fat down one side. Adding the large dollop of (included) chive butter only worsened matters. The filet and porterhouse came with smoky grilled asparagus and a smear of purèed potatoes.
The half rack of lamb ($45) was a winner—two large and meaty chops over toasted couscous with red grapes and roasted fennel, served with asparagus. Wild Atlantic salmon, a special, was one of the best dishes we sampled. The thick, moist fillet had crispy skin and was topped with a stunning sweet potato, corn and crab hash, all bathed in a luxurious lemon beurre blanc.
Classic appetizers included shrimp cocktail (four jumbos with a nicely lime-tinged cocktail sauce) and a wedge salad (actually two wedges of sparklingly crisp iceberg lettuce) bathed in blue cheese dressing with chopped tomatoes, thick-cut smoked bacon, toasted walnuts and blue cheese crumbles. Also notable were warm chèvre salad with a wedge of deep-fried goat cheese atop a bed of dandelions in a tart citrus vinaigrette, and pan-seared diver scallops served with garlicky sautéed shiitake mushrooms and a celery root purée. Less impressive was sushi-grade tuna tartare overwhelmed with diced cucumbers and too-assertive ginger, pickled plums and wasabi aioli.
Desserts come courtesy of Toni Walton, a Cherry Hill pastry chef who was part of the original team on Cake Boss. Decadent apple-bourbon bread pudding was delicious, the eggy challah lending just the right soft texture to the creamy pudding, with a surprise crunch delivered by the topping of maple-bacon brittle. Also outstanding was pumpkin cheesecake with a cookie crust. Veering into calamitous over-sweetness were Oreo-crusted red velvet cake with mocha icing, and a Key lime tartlet with a too-soft cookie crust and a sugary meringue topping.