At the corner of Ontario and Rush in Chicago the newly remodeled James Hotel, New York favorite David Burke is making his presence known with Primehouse - sorry, David Burke's Primehouse.
When I say he's making his presence known, I mean the man himself walked past me at least seven times while I waited for my dining compatriot to arrive. Burke was prowling the new space not just to make sure things were moving smoothly, but to pick out friends and VIP's from the National Restaurant Show crowd in town who had decided to try Burke's latest place.
I should explain that although I am primarily a fish-eating vegetarian, I allow myself two steaks a year. Primehouse (I'm shortening the name - sue me), opened a few months ago and judging by the recent reviews, it seemed like a likely place for this year's first hunk of cow.
The place looks great. The old diner from before the transformation of the Lenox House into the James has been made into a swank hotel bar, with the obligatory $11 signature cocktails and servers in short black dresses. I tried the mojito topped with lime foam and found it tasty, but the foam was too tart and the drink underneath not tart enough. Try as I could, I couldn't get the foam to subside into the drink with a cocktail straw. I might have managed with a mixer, but only just.
Once my friend arrived, we were taken to a booth where the seats, tablecloth, and wine list were all covered in leather. Yes, this is a steak house and they don't want you to forget it.
Appetizers are creative and include the steak house standards, like a delicious Caesar salad made tableside (anchovy paste only, no actual little fishies), along with creative dishes like a salmon and tuna tartare with two curled potato gallette chips and salmon roe that can be scooped onto toasts spread with sweet butter and seaweed. Three sauces come with the tartare. Of these, the pale curry sauce paired best with the fish.
The bonus "appetizer" every diner receives is an enormous popover, made with poppyseeds and gruyere. They'll keep them coming as long as you're interested. I filled up after one, but my friend enjoyed two and a half before deciding to save room for the main event.
You don't have to order steak at Primehouse. Burke's swordfish chop was available the night we dined, along with a variety of fish, pork, and chicken dishes. I almost gave up one of my twice-yearly steaks for an oxtail pot roast dish. Almost.
As for the steaks, the reviews online have focused on the South Side filet, a bone-in cut that's "lightly-aged" in a salt-lined room for 4-5 days. Other steaks include the 20 ounce porterhouse for one which is aged in the same salt-lined "cave" much longer.
You won't be disappointed with any of the steaks, but the reviewers who have focused on the South Side filet mignon cut have done so for good reason. It's an amazing cut of meat, and it is so tender, it disintegrates in your mouth. I enjoyed the porterhouse quite a bit, but I wished at the end of the meal that I'd had the South Side cut as well. My dining companion practically crawled inside the bone trying to find any bits of meat he'd missed.
Sides were sized to share, but not ridiculously big, as at Gibson's or other older Chicago steakhouses. The garlic spinach was lightly sauteed and nicely garlicky, and the basil mashed potatoes flavorful and creamy. I was diasappointed by the mushrooms, which I found a little watery and too heavily infused with an anise flavor.
There were other minor disappointments.
* Our very responsive server (originally from my wife's home city of Louisville) confirmed to us when we asked that the enclosure we saw a booth away was a multidirectional security camera. I'm not a fan of being watched while eating, particularly by a faceless security guard. How's my steak look, General Hayden?
* The steaks are presented on beautiful wooden carts, but the aisles are not quite wide enough to allow the Caesar salad cart to sit in any one location for long without being banged up and the Ceasar salad specialist rousted by carts with steaks rolling by.
* I was also disappointed that Burke's restaurant drops unopened bottles of his commercially available steak sauce on the table, but charges $2 for any other sauce (like the bearnaise my companion ordered). That would be forgiveable in a restaurant where the margins were slimmer, but at nearly $40/steak, the charge for sauce seems petty and the push on Burke's branded steak sauce disrespectful to the steaks themselves and a transparent ploy to push Burke's commercial products.
* In what's supposed to be a positive note, Burke's menu brags that they've bought their own bull to ensure that all their steaks are his offspring. OK, I understand where meat comes from, and acknowledge that I might be more sensitive to this as a usually semi-vegetarian, but this seems grotesque. "Make some more babies, bull-man, so we can cut them up and serve them with blue cheese sauce for an extra $2." I'd rather have an anonymous steak than yet another one of Bob the Bull's kids. Am I alone in thinking this?
Overall, however, the annoyances were more than made up for by the excellent service and the delicious food. I was too stuffed at meal's end to order any dessert more ambitious than the sparkling fruit salad (an assortment of cut fruit and berries in a champagne mint sauce), but I did try a bite of the Prime, a massive and intensely chocolate cake. Next time, I'll be sure to try the cheesecake tree where cheesecake "lollipops" extend from the branches of a treelike serving piece. It looked tasty and fun, but I was on the verge of bursting. Next time.
I'd go back to David Burke's Primehouse for my next steak if I were in Chicago. given the interesting seafood pieces, I may even try to bring the Redhead to Primehouse It was a good experience, and even for the price, was worth the money paid. I do encourage them to lose the supermarket shoplifting cameras, and to maybe rearrange the tables to allow the Caesar salad specialist to do his job without getting jostled.
David Burke's Primehouse
616 N. Rush St., Chicago
312 660 6000
P.S. So what does eating a 20 ounce steak do a semi-vegetarian? It makes it so he can't sleep. I was up until 3:00 pulsing with meaty protein energy and a bit of indigestion. I'll spare you any further reports. But boy, was that tasty steak.