Probably few guests at the Rochester Chop House notice the inscription on the wall above the kitchen door as they settle into their cozy armchairs in the softly lit restaurant on downtown Rochester’s Main Street.
If they did, they would get a little insight into the mind of proprietor Bill Kruse. Hand-lettered on that wall is a list of restaurants and chefs from other places — Sebastian’s, Charley’s Crab, Shaw’s Crab House, Lelli’s, Joe Muer’s, Excalibur, and the Pine Club — that over the years inspired some of what emanates from Kruse’s kitchen: such things as Lelli’s zip sauce, Muer’s stewed tomatoes and creamed spinach, and Sebastian’s swordfish.
“Because good is good,” reads the inscription, done by artist Barney Judge, who is about to add more names to the list, because Kruse is always on the lookout for ideas. And when he finds something he likes, he is more than willing to give credit where credit is due. Kruse explains it this way: “I’m a good thief.” He continues to frequent other restaurants — here, in Chicago, and elsewhere, unabashedly snitching what he believes are good ideas that can be tweaked and spliced into his menu.
He gives each of his managers what he calls “a shopping allowance” so they may dine with their spouses once a month at competing restaurants. He asks only that they return with a written report on what, if anything, the place is doing better than home base.
That honesty is unusual in a business that has become increasingly competitive over the more than 30 years since Kruse started with the Chuck Muer organization as a dining-room manager, ending up as vice president of the corporation. When he left in 1987 to open his first Kruse & Muer restaurant, it was with the blessing (and financial backing) of Muer.
Kruse now has four of the casual Kruse & Muer locations, including one right across the street from the place he considers his flagship restaurant, the Rochester Chop House. The buil-ding at 306 Main St. has been a prime destination in downtown Rochester since 1991, when Kruse and his partners took over a 20-year old restaurant called Cooper’s Arms and completely reworked it, adding the prime restaurant to the larger space in the back, and a smaller, much more casual oyster bar, Kabin Kruser’s, to the front. The two have separate menus but share the same kitchen.
Kabin Kruser’s genuine Down East wharf-side flavor, with oysters and clams heaped amid crushed ice in a galvanized metal tub and its zinc-topped bar, offers a contrast to the other half, the Chop House’s solidly Midwestern persona with such disparate décor details as moose head trophies and crystal chandeliers.
There’s something of a throwback, roadhouse-style feel about the Chop House, which manages to be upscale and yet unpretentious at the same time.
Kruse calls it “a blend of Joe Muer’s and a steakhouse,” with a menu just about equally divided between red meat and fresh fish and seafood.
It has two adjoining rooms, one called the Lobster Room, because for years its décor featured a lobster painted on an aged wood wall (now gone), and the bi-level brick-and-wood main dining room with mirrored walls on one side above a long row of side-by-side tables.
That part of the room is about to get an update, with the addition of some large banquettes for cozier seating. Tables throughout are covered in linen and topped with crisp brown paper torn from big rolls.
Black linen napkins and graceful wine glasses remind patrons that, yes, this is a restaurant with ambitions, butcher paper notwithstanding.
Chef Sparky Armstrong, a 1995 graduate of the Schoolcraft College culinary program who went for further study at Le Cordon Bleu in London, has been the resident chef for 18 months, turning out such Rochester Chop House signatures as the notable Maryland jumbo lump crab cakes, flash-fried baby frogs’ legs, potato-encrusted whitefish, and the relatively small selection of steaks.
Steaks are from certified Hereford beef, choice rather than the prohibitively expensive prime, and they measure up well, particularly given the much more gentle price range than at the top tier of local steakhouses. The largest and most popular is the 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye, and in a world where over-the-top steakhouse prices have become routine, the substantial cut is a relative bargain at $35.
One of the best ways to order steak here is by combining the 6-ounce tenderloin with a seafood accompaniment. Crab-stuffed shrimp, two of the notable Maryland jumbo lump crab cakes, king crab legs, or a 6-ounce lobster tail.
Soups, including the tomato-based conch chowder (a welcome change from the usual clam chowder), and salads, including the distinctive house coleslaw made with horseradish dressing and crumbled Maytag blue cheese, and such extras as the house hash browns, are strengths here, as is the friendly, accommodating service by a well-trained staff.
The menu is varied with a daily-changing list of specials, which begins with eight featured wines, the day’s oyster selection, and some dishes that go beyond the simple grilled steaks and fish that are the menu base. One is a Parmesan-encrusted veal chop flattened scaloppini-style while still on the bone, then sautéed and served with arugula and tomato relish.
Kruse says he is planning to add four or five “unique vegetable and starch items,” typified by roasted red and yellow beets served with blood oranges; and wild rice with cranberries, pine nuts, and dried cherries — side dishes more in tune with a new generation of diners looking for something less starchy than the usual fare.
“I want the Chop House to give you things you don’t expect,” Kruse says.
And it does. It delivers a comfortable middle ground between corner-cutting bargain restaurants and the top echelon, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
306 Main St., Rochester; 248-651-2266. L Mon.-Fri. D daily.