Many years ago, when Barrett first announced that he was giving up meat for the sake of love, his cholesterol and his weight, my first thought was a purely selfish one: what about GIBSON'S?? Barrett had introduced to me to this Mecca of steak dinners in Chicago a several years before and it had become a fixed feature in my visits to Chicago. Wicked martinis, steaks you could cut with a butter knife, embarrassingly generous side dishes: Gibsons was an institution and a temple to excess. The first time I went to Gibson's with my good friends Barrett and Tom, we had to wait about 45 minutes for our table. Yes, this was for a table we reserved in advance. We squeezed into the heaving bar and stationed ourselves near the baby grand piano, on which a Billy Joel type was pumping out jazz age tunes. I made the classic mistake of downing two of Gibsons huge signature martinis while waiting in the teeming bar. The rest of that evening is a bit of a blur, but I do remember a fiery hot pepper steak, huge platters of broccoli, baked potato and spinach, and a killer hangover the next morning. A few years later, I introduced the Critic to Gibson's and he too made the Two-Martini-Mistake. But he loved the steaks, the buzzing atmosphere, the Experience. (By the way, Barrett's vegetarianism turned out to allow a few exceptions, including Thanksgiving turkey, Gibsons-once-a-year and corned beef on St. Patrick's day. I would have gone for bacon, myself.)
Since then, we have learned to limit ourselves to ONE martini pre-dinner and go easy on the wine afterwards. Those martinis are killers.
This year, it was with a slight tinge of sadness that we asked our friend Tom to reserve a table for three, no Barrett, no Redhead.
We arrived at Gibsons about fifteen minutes early for our reservation, fully expecting to be asked to wait in the bar for our table. To our great surprise - a first in many years of visiting the place - our table was already waiting for us, and this in the middle of the dinner rush. However, when we arrived in the great dining room we found that as usual, it was packed with tightly fitted tables, all full (except ours). We ordered drinks: two Martinis (No, just a normal olive, who on earth came up with the revolting idea of stuffing them with blue cheese? Shoot him, please.) and a Gibson for the Critic, who loves pickled onions as much as he dislikes olives. The free table, the trendy blue-cheese-olives: I was starting to worry a bit about my old friend Gibson's. Was it losing touch?
Our drinks arrived promptly, and immediately afterwards our waiter was back with the tray of Meat to help us make our selections. I can never remember what all the cuts are, so you are on you own with the above photo. I ordered, as usual, the pavé with peppercorns and a soothing Bearnaise sauce to accompany it. Over the years we have become older and in some small way, wiser: we only order one side dish now because it's embarrassing to leave enough food on your table to feed a small village in Mexico at the end of the evening. So we went for the baked potatoes. And starters? Shrimp for Tom, a soft-shelled crab for the Critic (who afterwards admitted, "I never would have ordered it if it weren't for that Gibson...") and oysters for me.
The oysters arrived, as usual with a spicy tomato and horseradish sauce. In France, they are invariably served with lemons and a sauce of shallots and vinegar, which is lovely, but it's also welcome to have a change sometimes. The tomato sauce was just the right balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot: just a dab on each oyster was enough to bring out its briny goodness without overwhelming. That said, the oysters were a bit watery, as though they had lost their original sea-water contents and been replaced with tap. I dont' know much about the logistics of transporting live oysters from the coast to land-locked Chicago, though, and perhaps this is necessary. As you can see in the photo, I also tried one of Tom's shrimp and it too was well complimented by the tomato-horseradish relish, hot and sweet balancing on your tongue perfectly. The Critic raved about his soft-shelled crab, but by the time he remembered to offer me a taste it was already gone.
By now, we had ordered another round of drinks and another sign of slippage appeared in the service: mine came with those darned blue-cheese-stuffed olives. When I pointed out the mistake, it was taken away and came back, obviously the same drink judging by the smears of cheese on the sides and floating in the gin. They also, confusingly, brought me the offending b-c-stuffed olives in a separate glass. Not class.
Finally, the steaks arrived. Gibsons is primarily a steak house. If you eat fish (like the Redhead), you can order a fine lobster and maybe some oysters. But if you are a strict vegetarian you'll be limited to the (admittedly generous) side dishes. So it's perhaps fitting that the steaks arrive on a simple white platter, no garnish, just steak and sauce. But it's a bit sad looking, even once you perch a hunk of potato on the side.
However, the steaks themselves are still just fine. The knives are not particularly sharp, but they cut through the meat easily and the flavour is exceptional. These are the steaks that remind you why you are a meat eater. Yes, there are ecological, health and perhaps sentimental reasons for sticking to vegetables. But these steaks remind you that man is at base a carnivore and for a very tasty reason. The crust of black pepper is perfectly proportioned to the steak and just spicy enough that you welcome the rich creamy Bearnaise sauce that comes with it. I have also tried the blue cheese sauce in the past and although it is very good it misses that wonderful spicy/creamy combination that the pepper and Bernaise captures. The portions were, as always, over-generous. The food was very, very good. With the exception of the blue cheese olives (can you tell that one bothered me not a little?) the taste is still impeccable. But I'm a little worried about the service issues and trendy touches like those olives. Let's hope that the managers of Gibson's don't lose their grasp of the important part: delicious steaks cooked to perfection.
And those martinis. George Orwell famously wrote in Down and Out in Paris and London that the key to a great steak restaurant was sharp knives. I would add to that observation that killer Martinis don't hurt either.
1028 N Rush St
Chicago, IL 60611