Reviews: Pump Room and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse

PUMPED-UP KICKS: Steering through the precarious intersection of celebrities and restaurants

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Michael Jordan’s Steak House

In case you’ve forgotten, in the early 1990s Michael Jordan didn’t just walk on water: He parted the water, turned it to wine, and drank it. Then he tried baseball, and from an image standpoint, it was ingenious, because failure humanized him. Jordan returned to the NBA not as a god but as a man who couldn’t hit a slider any better than the rest of us, and we rooted for him even harder. He did not disappoint. The disappointment came later, with another false retirement and a false divorce. Then the real retirement and real divorce.

What does any of this have to do with the new steak house in the InterContinental? Plenty. I no longer expect everything MJ touches to retain a spark of his magic. That’s how I can accept with a shrug that Michael Jordan’s name is now on an utterly average restaurant. An erratic place that dry-ages a gorgeous New York strip 28 days and then serves it lukewarm. Where James O’Donnell’s smart, terrific creations, like a tangy, ginger-toned Maine lobster salad, bump up against a shrimp-and-grits abomination with rubbery crustaceans and grits soupier than Carolina in July. If we’re going with 1990s Bulls metaphors, this is the Luc Longley of steak houses: endearing but inconsistent.

The restaurant looks great. Bringing the lush details from Jordan’s beef outposts in New York and Connecticut to Michigan Avenue was brilliant. The multilevel space, awash in bronze and Cognac tones, with velvet booths and a glass catwalk bridge overlooking the hotel lobby, is pure tourist bait. “You’re from Chicago?” a hostess asked my group incredulously. Believe it, sister. And I liked the crispy-soft garlic bread with Ader Käse blue cheese fondue as much as everyone else. I even fell for the bright 23-ingredient chopped salad, though I wondered if each tomato counted as one ingredient.

THE SKINNY

MICHAEL JORDAN’S STEAK HOUSE InterContinental Chicago, 505 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-321-8823
FYI “Spoiler alert!” said one of my guests as I dug into the 23-layer chocolate cake. “All 23 layers taste the same.”
TAB $40–$82
HOURS Lunch and dinner daily

Tab does not include alcohol, tax, or tip.

After that, things got a little messy. The harissa-punched lamb chops with merguez sausage were expertly seared to give diners a glorious char in every bite; a delicate pan-roasted Alaskan halibut was balanced atop an aggressively smoked pecan romesco. You may notice I’m not mentioning any steaks. I can’t identify with a steak house that proudly drowns everything in a cloying ginger-balsamic sauce. Every cut I tried—particularly the bone-in rib eye—was overwhelmed and muddled by sharp flavors. For $48, I’d like to taste my steak. Pacing problems, which made what should have been a two-hour meal last three, didn’t help. Other than a Prairie Fruits Farm goat cheesecake with spiced nut crunch, plum sorbet, and citrus caramel, desserts (by One Sixtyblue’s Hillary Blanchard-Rikower) disappointed and confounded—not sure what they’re going for with the gummy love child of Key lime and meringue. Spend your money on the bar’s honest versions of forgotten cocktails, like the Blinker, a potent mix of rye, grapefruit juice, and raspberry.

When I met Michael Jordan at Japonais in 2007, he struck me as sad, as though no new experience could come close to matching what he had accomplished and there was no point in trying. A man who still earns $60 million annually in endorsements eight years after retiring is obviously not in the restaurant game for the money. This venture is about his ego and his legacy. Frankly, it’s not good enough or bad enough to affect either.
 

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