A Chicago tradition: Gene & Georgetti's exquisitely charred 32-ounce porterhouse
Here's a question for steak aficionados: How do the three most widely touted New York steak houses (non-chain variety) compare with the three best independents in Chicago? To find the answer, I pitted New York's Peter Luger, Wolfgang's, and BLT Steak against our Chicago Chop House, Gibsons, and Gene & Georgetti-no New York–based Palm or franchises of homegrown Morton's eligible for this contest. The surprising result turned me around as to what a great steak ought to taste like.
The contrasts between New York's indie steak-house culture and Chicago's pop up as soon as you scan the menus for appetizers. In addition to the regulation jumbo shrimp cocktail that Chicago emporiums feature, the New York places all offer thick slices of sizzling bacon as a starter. Definitely an indication of the German heritage of many New York steak houses, as is the side of choice-German fried potatoes with onions-whereas the Chicago counterparts lean Jewish (cured salmon) or Italian (fried calamari). No problems here: I love them all. When it comes to wines, the distinctions tend to fade; with the exceptions of Gene & Georgetti and Peter Luger, the steak houses I visited all have great lists. Another draw.
But let's get to the meat: the most startling difference is that each of the New York places dry-ages the beef, while the Chicago standouts favor wet-aging, vacuum sealed in Cryovac. John Colletti, the managing partner of Gibsons, said, "In the Midwest the tastes are different than on the East Coast. We listen to our customers and this is what they want." And at The Chicago Chop House, which used to dry-age the steaks, the chef, Bill Farrahi, claimed that "people have lost their taste for the gamier flavor of dry-aged beef." New York's David Burke, however, plans to dry-age on site in his new Chicago steak spot, Primehouse. As for meat terminology, for New Yorkers "prime steak" means a big porterhouse to share; in Chicago, "double porterhouse" gets the job done-and that's the steak I was after.
In New York, I headed first for Peter Luger Steak House, the Valhalla of American steak houses-the only steak house to win a Michelin star in the Guide New York City 2006. Opened in 1887 (one year before Katz's Deli), the restaurant looks like a sterile blue-collar German beer hall: beer steins on wall racks offer about the only decorative touch amid the wood tables and floors and too-bright lighting. The suitcases against the wall count as evidence that travelers check in at this Brooklyn institution before they check into their hotels. And credit cards are useless at Luger's, which means at least one person at each table carries a wad of cash.
The Forman family bought the restaurant in 1950 from Peter Luger's children, nine years after his death, and still run it. The famous prime short loins (the source of porterhouses) are expertly selected from competing purveyors by the finicky women in the family. The meat is then dry-aged in Luger's cellar, but the timing varies according to the cut. The menu (if you insist on seeing one) doesn't tell you that the steaks are porterhouse-it just says steaks for two, three, or four-except for the single, which is a New York strip and entirely beside the point of the cab ride to Brooklyn. Like most diners, my party ordered steaks for two ($76), two of them since there were four of us. (All the steaks are served precut into slabs, and I had read that the larger steaks had more pieces but less filet.) I also wanted to order one medium rare, as I usually do, and one rare, since I had heard Luger steaks were best that way. The steaks are one-and-three-quarters-inch thick-thin by Chicago steak-house standards-with a surprisingly large filet portion. Luger's menu doesn't give weights, but the steaks for two seem as hefty as those in Chicago, though shaped differently (broader).
They come sizzling with butter on a hot platter. The medium-rare steak is delicious but the rare steak is utterly stupendous. Barely charred and with a smooth texture all the way through, the taste was perfectly described by an equally enthralled friend as "the naked beef." It had a delightful bite and I appreciated the sharp steak knives, but the dry-aging effect came through beautifully: a nutty, buttery, rounded flavor with almost no char taste. The steak at Peter Luger was unforgettable, so amazing I could almost forgive the cab driver who pretended there was no straight route from Brooklyn to my room on the Upper West Side.
Wolfgang's Steakhouse on Park Avenue is owned by the German-born Wolfgang Zwiener (headwaiter when he retired from 40-plus years of service at Luger's), his son Peter (an investment banker with an MBA from the University of Chicago), and two other veteran Luger waiters. Located in the private dining room of the original 1912 Vanderbilt Hotel, the two-year-old place feels as though it's been there for ages. The gorgeous blue-and-gold arched and tiled ceilings, designed by Raphael Guastavino, are designated landmarks. Our waiter, one of the Luger alums, tells us acidly that Wolfgang's is trying to be a nicer place than Luger, which has a "diner atmosphere." Wolfgang's is definitely beautiful but it's also stunningly noisy.
And despite taking credit cards, once you get past the décor, Wolfgang's sports plenty of Luger influence, from its dry-aging box in the basement (for prime meat aged three to four weeks) to unnamed "steak for two, for three, for four" served on blazingly hot steak platters. Drawing on our experience at Luger, my wife and I order the porterhouse for two ($76) rare. It has excellent dry-aged flavor, and though the filet side isn't quite as big as Luger's, it's definitely more tender-in fact, astoundingly so. Ladies and gentlemen of Park Avenue, this is serious meat, awfully close to Peter Luger's.
BLT Steak in Midtown Manhattan is a modernized American steak house with a French sensibility thanks to the chef, Laurent Tourondel, who also owns BLT Prime and BLT Fish. A long zinc bar, glossy ebony and brown wood tables, leather-covered chairs and banquettes, and suede paneled walls setting off walnut floors make the place look more urbane bistro than masculine steak house. The French touches include a free starter of brandy-infused duck liver pâté topped with aspic and served on toast points, and wonderful big popovers made with Gruyère cheese that come with the appetizers.
The steaks at BLT Steak don't claim to be prime. Rather, they are certified Angus corn-fed Midwest beef, dry-aged 28 days, and broiled at 900 degrees. They come on a heated oval cast-iron platter with a thyme sprig, knobs of herbed butter, and roasted garlic heads. With each steak, diners get to choose a sauce on the side: béarnaise, peppercorn, red wine, three-mustard, blue cheese, horseradish, or steak. To stay the competitive course, I skipped the herb-marinated American Kobe skirt steak and went for the porterhouse for two (40 ounces at $79). Though a notch below the specimens at the other two New York places, the medium-rare porterhouse was excellent, with a filet side that cut like butter under the crusty surface. With such good beef, I found the sauces ridiculous-better suited to a filet mignon at a fancy French restaurant-and simply ignored them. But I know of no other steak house, Chicago or New York, that leaves a final treat of chocolate-filled cookies. BLT Steak has the French steak-house concept down pat.
Back home, I went first to The Chicago Chop House, which in the February 2000 issue of Chicago I rated as the city's best. But, on this most recent visit, while the multistory restored Victorian still looked great and the historic Chicago photos covering the walls still fascinated me, something about the meat had changed. The prime steak, previously dry-aged, now is wet-aged six to eight weeks before hand-cutting, and the difference is noticeable-to its detriment. It has more mineral flavor, even ferrous (more bloody tasting than dry-aged steaks). A friend who had accompanied me on the New York excursion noticed a slight "boiled" flavor under the light char.
The 48-ounce porterhouse looks awesome, a two-and-three-quarters-inch-thick behemoth costing $75. I also tried the 24-ounce New York strip ($44 and a little over two inches high), the beauty that led me to rate Chicago Chop House the best. The steaks here are still enjoyable, and a couple of good things that haven't changed are that they come with extra beef juice, a particularly nice touch, and that a house salad and baked or mashed potato with gravy are included with dinner.
At Gibsons Steakhouse, the Gibsons hats, T-shirts, and steak knives for sale on the menu signal that the perennially jammed place is a tourist magnet as well as a draw for local regulars. Exuberant waiters hype the platter of steaks brought to the table: "USDA Midwest corn-fed beef. Prime, all prime. Wet-aged three weeks-makes them more tender. Eighteen-hundred-degree oven, so there's going to be a char on the top and bottom-locks in the flavor. You are going to get a soup or salad with your entrée-we've got chicken noodle tonight." Our waiter got so caught up in his raw-beef show and spiel, he failed to notice that every time he jabbed the pepper-coated filet mignon with his crumber, he flicked cracked peppercorns at me.
The double porterhouse (called "big" porterhouse on the menu), 48 ounces and $73.25, was two and three-quarters inches thick, a typical Chicago monster. It was plenty tender and more deeply marbled than any of the other porterhouses I tried, which would have been great if the steak had been hotter. But unlike in New York, its platter was not sizzling hot and it cooled quickly. That meant that after the first few bites, the beef began to taste fatty, instead of meaty, under the char. If the kitchen would solve that problem, Gibsons' steak would be almost indistinguishable from that at The Chicago Chop House. A good steak, not a great one.
As we enter Gene & Georgetti, the men filling up the barstools all turn and look at us, apparently checking to see if any of the local power broker habitués had shown up. They quickly realize my party is not among them and turn back to their cocktails. Opened in 1941 in a wood-frame 1870s building, the restaurant features dining rooms that look every one of their years, not much different from the foursome of cronies schmoozing over their cocktails and steaks at the next table.
Here the prime beef-whole loins-is sealed in Cryovac and wet-aged for 28 days at 30 degrees on the premises. There's no double or single porterhouse on the menu, so I ask the waiter why. He says the T-bone ($42.75) is really a porterhouse, and it clearly looks like one, judging by the expansive filet portion. Is it an old-fashioned quirk to call it a T-bone? No matter. What sets it apart from those at Gibsons and The Chicago Chop House is the heavy dark crusting from the 1,100-degree Vulcan broiler. A revelation: heavy charring enhances the flavor of wet-aged steaks, while it detracts from dry-aged steaks. Bingo! Gene & Georgetti now becomes my favorite independent Chicago steak house. I also like it that main courses come with salad and the signature cottage fries, some parts as crusty as the steaks (and the waiters) and some parts soft as the inside of a filet.
It was daunting to eat so much beef, but this two-metropolis exercise was an education, with the style of aging proving to be the crucial difference. In the 1972 edition of James Beard's American Cookery, the author took it for granted that prime beef would be dry-aged, but times and economics have changed. Wet-aging is more cost-effective, because the Cryovac seals the meat's moisture in, while dry-aging causes up to 25 percent loss in weight due to shrinkage and the necessity of removing the dark crust that forms through exposure to air. That's why dry-aged steaks seem denser and wet-aged steaks taste watery by comparison. If it's true that Chicagoans prefer the flavor of wet-aging, so be it. Call me old-fashioned and disloyal to my hometown, but, to my taste, New York's best independent steak houses do it better, the old-fashioned way.
BLT STEAK-106 East 57th Street, New York. Appetizers $9 to $16; entrées $24 to $79; desserts $9. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner Monday to Saturday. Reservations: 212-752-7470.
THE CHICAGO CHOP HOUSE-60 West Ontario Street. Appetizers $8 to $78; entrées $20 to $97; desserts $4.25 to $5.25. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-787-7100.
GENE & GEORGETTI-500 North Franklin Street. Appetizers $4.75 to $17.50; entrées $17.50 to $69.75; desserts $6.75 to $7.25. Lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday. Reservations: 312-527-3718.
GIBSONS STEAKHOUSE-1028 North Rush Street. Appetizers $3.25 to $29; entrées $8.50 to $73.25; desserts $4.50 to $12.75. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 312-266-8999.
PETER LUGER STEAK HOUSE-178 Broadway, Brooklyn, New York. Appetizers $7 to $22; entrées $30 to $152; desserts $8. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 718-387-7400.
WOLFGANG'S STEAKHOUSE-4 Park Avenue, New York. Appetizers $5 to $12; entrées $30 to $152; desserts $8. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 212-889-3369.
Photograph: Jeff Kauck