Just when you think Chicago has reached a critical mass of steak houses, along come three more. Two are hardened city dwellers, courtesy of well-known chefs, and the third-in the northwest suburbs-arrives via a sizzling West Coast–based chain.
David Burke knows the value of a good gimmick. The beefy chef has been photographed standing beside his magnificent $250,000 Black Angus bull-named Prime 207L-which is diligently at work at Creekstone Farms in Kentucky, siring steers destined for the Himalayan-salt-tiled dry-aging room of David Burke's Primehouse. A major figure on the Manhattan scene-and a creative force behind the Smith & Wollensky steak-house chain-Burke was last seen here in 1995 to launch Park Avenue Café. In the weeks following Primehouse's March opening, Burke was often on hand, but in the long run, Jason Miller will run the kitchen while Burke attends to his NYC restaurants.
Housed in the splashy new James hotel on Rush (previously Lenox Suites), Primehouse is the second foray into the Chicago scene for the New York restaurant group B. R. Guest. (Blue Water Grill was the first.) The modern space is furnished with dark brown leather–covered chairs and tables smartly wrapped in fitted red leather. Look up and there are white linen ceiling shades and blackened nickel chandeliers. Black-and-white pencil drawings of corkscrews adorn earth-toned walls-a good sign that conviviality abounds here.
Burke likes to put things on a stick, from the lollipop of olive brine and blue cheese garnishing the "deconstructed and dirty" vodka martini, to a dessert "tree" of cheesecake lollipops. In addition to the martini lollipop, Eben Klemm, an MIT-trained chemist and the B. R. Guest "director of cocktail development," also created a Manhattan made with leather-infused Maker's Mark bourbon and a gooey bitters-and-maraschino gumdrop. Yep, it's gimmicks galore, and while the silly cheesecake conceit looks like the table prize from a bridal shower, the two cocktails are actually terrific. And, no, the Manhattan doesn't taste like a saddle.
There are clear New York steak-house influences on Burke's menu. For one, this place dry-ages the beef on site. Then there's the eggy popover presented in a little copper pan to each diner, similar to those at Manhattan's BLT Steak (see "High Steaks," Dining Out, April), a fact commented on by the New York–savvy diners at the next table. The complimentary bottled steak sauces brought to the table are another Gotham touch, although one has so much horseradish that it tastes like stray shrimp cocktail stuff, and the other, named 207L Steak Sauce-no bull-smacks of a zesty Texas barbecue number. Other sauces include the French-style three peppercorn and the béarnaise, available for $2. As I waited, drooling, for my prime steak to arrive, I wondered: Why all these sauces if the air from the Himalayan salt in the drying room is supposed to make the steaks so good?
Well, after multiple visits to Primehouse, I can say if you hit the place on a night when the grill man gets the beef right, sauces of any stripe are beside the point. But on two visits, the steaks at my table were at best overcooked and at worst almost burnt on the bottom-one sad porterhouse approached the consistency of leather. That's the time to bring on the sauces, or send the beef back.
The one visit when the steaks came out properly cooked turned into a beefeater's paradise, although any influence from the salt walls in the aging room is debatable-seems as though a sprinkle of salt at the table would do the same job. Besides a porterhouse, a bone-in New York strip, and the wonderfully marbled "Kentucky" rib eye, there is a strange filet mignon, the bone-in "South Side" filet. (Our waiter told us it was named in honor of Chicago's stockyard heritage and that only two can be taken from a steer.) Lightly dry-aged for five days, it comes from high up on the hip and with a massive bone adding flavor to the imposingly thick filet. When the kitchen got it right, it was easily the most flavorful filet I've had at a steak house; the unfortunate night they botched the cooking, the result was no better than chewy pot roast.
If you prefer seafood, try the Maine lobster steak. Part of a one-pound lobster is turned into a tasty mousse embedded with chunks of claw and tail meat, and finished with candied lemon and a stack of shoestrings flavored with Moroccan spices. Or if steaks and lobster just don't give you the cholesterol buzz you want, go for the crackling whole pork shank served with punchy firecracker applesauce-an imposing hunk of pig that you can also find at Smith & Wollensky.
Some of the Primehouse appetizers are very good, beginning with a Caesar salad made in a tableside show-unless you draw a booth where there is no maneuvering room for the salad cart, in which case you have to crane your neck and peer down the aisle to see it. In any event, order it with crab croutons ($5 extra), and you have a fine start. The topnotch cold shellfish platter is a reasonable $38 for a one-pound lobster, two kinds of oysters, two fish tartares, and more goodies with four dipping sauces. Lobster also shows up in a fine bisque (except ours wasn't hot enough) with green apple essence and a foot-long lobster spring roll on the side.
Like those cheesecake lollipops, the banana sundae also comes with a banana fritter on a stick. I haven't seen this much impaling since Braveheart. The "rack o' cookies" was ho-hum, perked a bit by vanilla mini-shakes for all. By far the best dessert is the "slice of prime," a magnificent multi-layered chocolate cake with s'mores ice cream, stabbed with a Texas longhorn's head-made of chocolate, of course. A friend marveled that the cake was so intensely chocolaty it made his spine shudder. Service seemed random, varying from polished to inept, but a properly extensive steak-house wine list is on track. After that leathery Manhattan I gravitated toward a six-ounce carafe of Spanish Viscarra Ribera del Duero Tempranillo ($13).
Equal parts restaurant and lounge candy, Avenue M exploded onto the scene in April. The bar area is so loud that not even the heavy curtains do much to protect the bi-level dining room from the chaos on the other side. But with the skilled executive chef Daniel Kelly (last seen at D.Kelly on Randolph) at the helm of a contemporary steak house, I was willing to endure the noise for a go at the menu. It's a sophisticated River West setting (in the former Como space) with rough wood walls, leather seating at white-clothed tables, and handsome rectangular lighting fixtures in muted tones.
Worthwhile appetizers include grilled polenta cake with wild mushroom ragoût and roasted cipolline; a thick crab cake, almost pure crab, with rémoulade, tomato, and an avocado relish that is essentially guacamole; and delicious New Zealand green-lipped mussels with white-wine garlic dipping sauce. For a place that doesn't have a sushi bar, I was surprised by how good the day's sashimi and maki rolls turned out to be. Not so the shrimp cocktail, which hit the trifecta of no-nos: poorly deveined, incompletely shelled, limp shrimp.
A half-dozen prime wet-aged steaks come with a choice of superfluous fresh or roasted garlic, bleu cheese, or béarnaise. Always a keystone, the porterhouse was picture perfect on one visit and overcooked on another; the bone-in cowboy steak (a rib eye) was overcooked, too, but was marbled heavily enough to survive with some juiciness intact. Be sure to add a side of cumin-spiced fries with truffle mayo and red pepper aïoli or savory Brussels sprouts in garlic cream.
Pan-seared chicken breast stuffed and layered with lobster in sauce américaine is a Kelly signature and a success; and for a steak-house chef without an Italian pedigree, this guy knows his way around house-made pastas (the menu doesn't say, but they're available in half portions). Linguine all'arrabbiata with jumbo shrimp, green olives, and peppers; ricotta ravioli with San Marzano tomato sauce; and pappardelle with savory veal and morel mushroom ragoût: all terrific, and all considerably cheaper than the steaks. I'd be happy to order these four dishes anytime.
A delicate raspberry and white-chocolate mousse is charming to behold-easily the best dessert in the house. For wines from the pricey list I liked the 2003 Green Point Victoria Australia Shiraz ($40), which the waiter inexplicably insisted was from California. As for "Avenue M," the name refers to the Milwaukee Avenue location, but on two of my visits the service might as well have hit the road. Repeated flaws included shaky descriptions, the arrival of entrées before appetizers were finished, plates delivered to the wrong diners, and servers reaching across the table to place or take items. Good thing the kitchen's got its act together.
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Lincolnshire is the 39th outpost of a chain that started in Newport Beach, California, in 1998. (This is the first in Illinois; two more are on the way next year.) I normally don't have high hopes for chain restaurants, but I'll always make an exception for a serious steak house-after all, the sun never sets on the Morton's empire. One glance around the room told me that Fleming's had the requisite high-end steak-house look: wood clad in leather upholstery, few windows but softly illuminated to a pleasing amber by alabaster chandeliers, and an exhibition kitchen.
Other attractive amenities await diners. First, Fleming's takes the wine bar part of its name seriously. The list includes 100 fairly priced wines by the glass or bottle-from which you can design your own wine flights-as well as an additional 100 bottles on the reserve list. And the opening volley of breads and crudités, including irresistible garlic butter crostini, celery sticks, and radishes, are jazzed by two delicious cheese spreads, one a goat cheese/pinot concoction and the other a mélange of sun-dried tomatoes, smoked Cheddar, and chardonnay. All nice nibbles to go with your first tastes of wine, and-a bonus-polished waiters are happy to bring seconds.
Pace yourself. The appetizers yield some winners, often with a hit of zing. While the shrimp cocktail gets a kick from chipotle horseradish sauce, Cajun-style barbecue shrimp come rich and spicy with a heady dose of garlic, and almond-crusted warm Brie oozes into the accompanying sliced apples and jalapeño sauce. A fresh green salad with candied walnuts and dried cranberries tastes pleasantly quaint with its raspberry vinaigrette.
Prime wet-aged steaks are hand-cut on the premises, broiled at 1,600 degrees, finished with butter and black pepper, and served on hot plates. Not a bad way to go: on my visits the steaks consistently arrived juicy, well marbled, and medium rare. My favorite was the 20-ounce bone-in New York strip-and again, although peppercorn, Madeira, and béarnaise sauces are served upon request, I found them overkill because the good meat was done right.
But wait-there's more. Two other beef dishes are worth considering. Beef Flemington is a nice retro rendition of filet mignon wrapped in puff pastry with mushroom duxelles and Madeira sauce. (Hmm, that makes two exceptions to my no-filet rule at prime steak houses, where I usually find them bland.) And the Sunday prime rib special is a keeper, not huge but at $28 a bargain that includes a choice of salad, a side dish (order the thick onion rings with chipotle mayo), and dessert (go for the walnut turtle pie). For seafood, skip the tired Alaskan king crab and order the terrific tuna mignon seared rare with poppy seed au poivre and tomato sherry vinaigrette-like a filet mignon with much less cholesterol.
AVENUE M–695 North Milwaukee Avenue. Appetizers $8 to $16; entrées $16 to $39; desserts $8. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 312-243-1133.
DAVID BURKE'S PRIMEHOUSE–The James, 616 North Rush Street. Appetizers $9 to $18; entrées $21 to $39; desserts $7 to $13. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly; brunch Saturday, Sunday. Reservations: 312-660-6000.
FLEMING'S PRIME STEAKHOUSE & WINE BAR–960 Milwaukee Avenue, Lincolnshire. Appetizers $8 to $14; entrées $21.50 to $53; desserts $7.50 to $11.50. Dinner nightly. Reservations: 847-793-0333.