Image courtesy of Anotherpintplease on Flickr via Creative Commons
Chicago is my kind of town. Urbane. Steeped in exciting history. On a lake so big it feels like an ocean. The home of the skyscraper. Oozing exciting restaurants like Alinea, Charlie Trotters and Moto. Posted there on work for a few days I put some feelers out about where to eat. Fiona Beckett, the Frugal Cook, came up trumps by sending me a brilliant article she had written on the subject. I used it as my bible!
Top of my list were Frontera Grill, which is famous for its Mexican food and a bunch of steak houses. My theory is that Americans do steak and Mexican food far better than we tend to over in Blighty. Sadly, we had to spurn the Frontera Grill, in favour of focussing on steak. In part this was due to their website which looked like it had been created in the 1980s by someone afflicted with colour blindness.
Our first port of call was Gibsons. 2 large, sipping tequilas and a couple of beers to the good, we were in the mood for embracing our inner carnivore. The restaurant was packed. Throbbing. A seething mass of greedy consumption. Just how a good steak house should feel. Not quite and deferential. But bristling with steak knives and humming with bravado and virility. For me nothing gets closer to the spirt of America than a restaurant that specialises in overfeeding people with expensive (and delicious) meat.
Upon arrival we jested around with the girls at the front desk. Jokingly I asked what she recommended, expecting her to say "steak", but instead she spent the next minute or so expounding the virtues of their double baked potato. I pictured this as simply being two baked potatoes. But it turned out it means a potato that has been baked twice!
We were lead to our tables, having been fashionably made to wait by a gentleman dressed in a white jacket. No sooner than we had sat down than we had been given a glass of iced water each and another white jacketed waiter was showcasing a range of tantalising steaks. It has only struck me what a great marketing ploy this is. And bravo to that. We couldn't resist and almost tripped over ourselves as we pointed and blurted out medium rare.
I had W.R.’s Chicago Cut and Patrick very modestly went for a small rump along with a small side salad (that was vast) and some creamed spinach. Apparently the W.R. Chicago Cut is quite famous. It is a bone in rib eye named after William Rice, the Chicago Tribune Food and Wine Columnist who used to adore it. I really am a sucker for a steak with a bit of history.
The steaks were both excellent. Mine was moist, charred, juicy, tender and seemingly never ending. I loved the crispy fat around the bone and the way the meat takes centre stage, just as Sinatra and Streisland used to here in the restaurant's former years. There's no messing around with chips, salads and dodgy tomatoes (unless you ask for them). The Americans do steak so much better than we do. They treat it as an art form and aggressively debate the merits between wet and dry aging. At Gibsons they wet age their meat which is frowned upon by the steak-onados. I cheekily asked whether the cattle had been grass fed and was laughed at as the man in the white jacked proudly explained they were grain fed USDA prime. This steak was hard to fault. The only slight whiff of criticism would be that the meat could have had more depth of flavour.
All around us groups of men (with a few women scattered in for equality's sake) gorged themselves on giant lobster from Australia, steaks the size of Chicago and cakes that burst out of the normal confines you'd imagine constrain the word gluttony. We couldn't help but be charmed by the intoxicating atmosphere and left both physically and emotionally fattened up.
The following evening I went to David Burke's Primehouse at the James Hotel for part two of my steak adventure. The website claims, impressively:
"The restaurant features meats hand-picked from Creekstone Farms in Kentucky that are dry-aged on the premises in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room....
... Prime is the name of our prized bull. Residing in the bovine splendor of Creekstone Farm, this magnificent 2500-pound Black Angus senior herd sire has a proven ability to breed offspring that achieve the highly coveted USDA quality grade in Creekstone’s proprietary progeny testing program.
Marbling is what imparts the unique flavor and juiciness of high quality beef, and Angus beef is recognized as the superior marbling beef breed. But Prime takes it to the next level. Based upon computer modeling of Prime’s lineage and offspring, he ranks in the top 2% of the active 14,361 Angus bulls in the United States with recorded purebred offspring. That means Prime’s unique genetics and offspring provide the finest dining experiences across the United States."
Wow. That's some serious attention to detail. I'd kill to see inside their Himalayan salt-tiled aging room. And to actually feature the exact bull that is the sire of all the meat is even more AWEsome. Having said all this, it does make things feel a bit cryogenic and weird! It takes away the image of cattle grazing on the Welsh hills and a bit of the magic. They even supply the name of their beast - Prime 207L.
Danny and I arrived early and were immediately shown to an empty booth. The restaurant was very smart as you'll see from the image above, but lacked the buzz of Gibsons and felt a bit flat. The waiters here wear black as if to add a more scientific and premium edge to contrast with the white jackets further uptown. Our waiter was extremely efficient and professional. It was the sort of performance that would see him alone being reviewed ahead of the steak back in London. But here this sort of service is the norm. When Danny and I noticed that he reminded us both of Ben Stiller's performance of a nurse in Happy Gilmore we almost had to walk out because we couldn't contain ourselves.
Instead of bread we were given what can only be described as a very well cooked Yorkshire pudding in its own little saucepan. A great touch of theatre, even if it was a bit odd and failed to satiate my desire for bread!
Then came some miso glazed scallops which looked sad, small and lacked any miso flavour. The lobster fried rice they came with was only two thirds accurate and missed the only exciting ingredient. Never over promise like this. It made me wish I had order the Angry Lobster, which has to go down as one of the best named dishes I've seen in a long time.
We were both drawn like mosquitoes to a flame towards their 55 day aged 20oz bone in rib eye which the menu proudly points out was voted Chicago's best dry aged steak in 2008. It was served perfectly medium rare. It had a slight crust and deep flavour. The flesh melted away to the soundtrack in my head of Blur's "Tender". Our Caesar salad was made at our table for added drama and extra freshness. It was all hard to fault. Prime 207L is one impressive beast.
I loved the contrasting experiences. The steak at both was excellent with David Burke just shading it for the flavour added by the dry aging process. But overall, the atmosphere at Gibsons far outdid the stiff and slightly contrived vibe at the DB's Primehouse. It's quite telling when you look at David Burke's website and find his range of flavour mists, dusts, pastrami salmon and salt. He's obviously a hell of a cook, but it just all seems a bit false and gimmicky. As a result Gibsons wins this little battle. Next time I'm keen to try out Morton's which steak-onados seem to approve of. I'm now looking forward to continuing my quest for the perfect steak in London. Any suggestions?