While other restaurants are expected to push relentlessly forward or die trying, the top steak houses have always been the ones that hark back to a bygone era. Places like Gene & Georgetti, Morton’s, and Gibsons—a.k.a. the Father, Son, and Holy Sirloin—mine memories from America’s golden age of beef, when man was king, consumption was unabashedly conspicuous, and the world must have seemed pretty black and white. In 2011, any other type of restaurant that dwelled so much in the past would be extinct faster than you can say “locavore,” yet the criteria by which we judge steak houses have not changed: Is the beef prime? The portions enormous? The cocktails stiff? Is the room manlier than a rugby scrum? Does the staff glad-hand you within an inch of your life? By these standards, Chicago Cut Steakhouse and Mastro’s, two ambitious newcomers that take their beef seriously and their customers even more so, are huge successes already.
Remember just after the economy tanked, when all the Hummers disappeared into garages for a while? Well, the gas guzzlers are back and double-parked at Dearborn Street and Grand Avenue, waiting for the valet. Their owners are inside Mastro’s, sipping martinis with their waify dates, who are ordering big steaks and not eating them. The first Midwestern satellite of the over-the-top franchise draws the same showy nip-and-tuckers in River North as it does in La-La Land, Vegas, and Scottsdale. One night I saw Vince Vaughn and his good-time crew pile out of an SUV, fresh from a Blackhawks game, and disappear through the revolving door.
Mastro’s ginormous two-level space, which will always be Spago to me no matter what restaurant moves in, is blacker than black. The woods, carpets, ceilings, and cougar-magnet piano bar are all black. (If your waiter carries a flashlight, as ours did, then it might be too dark.) The upstairs dining room, with its low ceiling and draconian brick-wall view of the Fort Dearborn Post Office, is more functional than charming. But you don’t eat the view. You eat seafood towers in a haze of dry ice or a hulking rack of lamb that looks like something out of The Flintstones. Or a side of onion rings so big you could slip one over your head and make a necklace. They’re all good, fresh, and utterly obscene. You should see the size of the doggy bags.
And, of course, you eat steak. Mastro’s wet-ages theirs for 28 days, cooks them in a 1,500-degree broiler, and serves them nude on sizzling 400-degree plates with nothing but clarified butter and parsley. The bone-in rib eye is pretty good—a big no-nonsense slab oozing with minerally charm. But the porterhouse was unappealingly fatty, and the center of the “chef cut” rib-eye chop was lukewarm. (If you like a char on your steak, look elsewhere.) I actually preferred much of the seafood, particularly an impeccable tuna tartare with a smart bottom layer of crushed wonton crisps. Desserts fare pretty well by steak-house standards, especially the irresistible crumbly pecan pie.
The tightlipped menu leaves you guessing about sauces and accompaniments, ostensibly so Mastro’s doting servers can personally tailor your meal. When my guest asked for a prep recommendation on his bone-in Kansas City strip, our tuxedoed waiter went all cray-cray. “We can do it however you want! My personal preference is Gorgonzola sauce. It’s like liquid blue cheese! No? How about peppercorn? We have a peppercorn crust or a peppercorn sauce. Or we could Oscar it! We could put a crab cake on top of it with blue cheese crumbles on top of that. . . .” My friend ordered it plain.
This went on all evening. While some may enjoy this level of pampering—Do you, Mr. Vaughn?—any server so obsessed with my comfort succeeds only in making me uncomfortable. One of my colleagues got a phone call from Mastro’s the day after a meal to find out if she was satisfied with her experience. That’s not attentive, it’s overkill.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse
Men in suits. Everywhere you look at Chicago Cut, you see men in suits. Clinking their tumblers in the rollicking bar, slicing into porterhouses in the crowded room, wandering down from billable hours at Kirkland & Ellis upstairs, loitering near the coat check. You can’t tell the waiters from the customers. It’s become something of a cliché to call a steak house “masculine,” but this sparkly new spot from Matt Moore and David Flom, a pair of Rosebud veterans (i.e., men in suits), goes beyond dudefest and enters into some alternate universe populated only by males and their livestock. It’s also more ambitious than any Rosebud ever was.
The overpacked dining room is steak house by the numbers—crimson velvet, faux leather, copious mirrors—with one bonus: an entire wall of 21-foot-tall windows surveying the Chicago River and Loop beyond. A breathtaking view, sure; even more so when you factor in the room’s lack of oxygen. Where Mastro’s menu is terse to the point of inconvenience, Chicago Cut’s gushes with information, sporting everything from explanations of meat temperatures to a diagram of a cow’s bodily regions. The generous waitstaff are similarly obliging, though some more than others. On one visit an apathetic waiter took my wineglass away while I was still drinking my lush 2007 Jim Barry Lodge Hill shiraz. Twice.
But you know what? Otherwise, the suits are all right. Chicago Cut’s bone-in rib eye is tremendous, dry-aged in-house for 35 to 40 days, butchered on the premises, and cooked in 1,800-degree Southbend infrared broilers. The bone marrow melts right into the beef, and it’s got that caramelized outer layer with the perfect salt char—minus the ashy tinge that always turns me off at Gibsons. Nothing else on the menu approaches this level, not even winners such as the seared foie gras with a scoop of orange marmalade or the shellfish bouquet of fresh lobster tail, shrimp, crab bites, and oysters from both coasts. The Dutch Dover sole meunière is a simple delight, though at $49 it felt like the manager was deboning my credit card tableside along with my fish. The salads are hit or miss, and desserts, while obnoxiously large, are just miss.
I guess I’m supposed to have an opinion on the restaurant’s modern touch: the iPad wine list. Is it an improvement over the unwieldy leather volumes it’s meant to replace or just wonky technogimmickry? Neither. It’s a crutch for the waiters, who obviously don’t know the wine list and don’t need to, because the customers are buying wine hand over fist.
There’s something vaguely perverse right now about new steak houses like Mastro’s and Chicago Cut, where indulgence and extravagance are not only accepted but treasured. I had fun at both restaurants, but the usual question—Are they any good?—gives way to a more nagging concern: Does Chicago really need them?