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Not-So-Silent Night 

Morton's of Chicago

Wednesday, Dec 20 2000
A few evenings ago, driven by a combination of Joyeux Noël, a Chicago reverie of Proustian dimensions, and a base, wintertime craving for charred red meat, I donned my gray flannel suit, hopped on a cable car, and met friends at Morton's. Our primary intent was to investigate the shop windows around Union Square, then take in a hearty meal to combat San Francisco's brand of upper-40s solstice chill. Unfortunately, one member of our dwindling band had a cold, another had to get home in time for The X-Files, and I handle the Yuletide with substantially less repose than I did a couple of decades ago. As a result, we more or less scrapped the Joyeux part and concentrated on suppertime.

Still, Morton's is a pretty good place to experience that citified Christmas spirit exemplified by the Sinatra recording of "Let It Snow" -- the one we native San Franciscans embrace in self-defense, since for us the traditional iconography of snowmen and sleigh rides is as experientially foreign as a holiday on Mars. The urban observance involves department-store windows and Christmas trees in hotel lobbies and hot toddies consumed in little saloons with crackling hearths and Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime Is Here" on the jukebox. Morton's bar fits right into this scene.

After hopping off the cable car -- which is likely to be festooned with colored lights, evergreen, and caroling passengers -- I entered Morton's tall vestibule, descended a sweeping staircase into the dim, subterranean enclave, and made my way to the bar. Tranquil yet festively decorated, this humble retreat is where '40s R&B star Oscar McLollie and other yuletide hepcats can be heard celebrating the season amid the clubby deco wainscoting and single-malt scotches.

I've never been to the original Morton's on State Street in Chicago -- I'm more of a Gene & Georgetti's man -- but that's not for lack of opportunity. I can't imagine a cross-country trip without a stop in what blues legend Joe Williams called "my little Chi-town," home of the Art Institute, Wrigley Field, Second City, and the Kingston Mines blues emporium, not to mention a living, breathing, citywide museum of incomparable urban architecture. Chicago is one of the two best places I know for eating (the other is Rome): It offers Italian beef sandwiches, hickory-smoked spareribs, and Byron's hot dogs with celery salt, along with Greek, Polish, and German food unlike anything available to the deprived Pacific-coaster. There's deep-dish pizza, yeah, but also stuffed pizza (especially Edwardo's). And, most relevant to this day's outing, it's got terrific steakhouses, among which Morton's is pre-eminent.

In recent years Morton's has replicated its elegantly masculine self beyond the shores of Lake Michigan and into a chain of more than five dozen restaurants, including one in Singapore, another in Hong Kong, and three more in Chicago (in addition to the downtown original). The 36-item menu is identical at each outlet. Each honors a venerable Morton's tradition: waiters roll carts laden with Saran-wrapped foodstuffs to each table for pre-menu perusal. One can purchase Morton's gift certifi- cates, Morton's steak knives, and even Morton's pig lamps -- porcine, pewter light fixtures similar to those that cast a soft glow across every Morton's tablecloth around the world. The result of all this sameness is a certain stylistic inevitability: At the San Francisco outlet, the meat-cart show-and-tell is as rote as a flight attendant's, and despite all the Giants memorabilia afoot there's no hint of an insurgent local sensibility. Then again, let's admit it: The food's good, and rib-sticking enough for the winter solstice.

Back at the bar, I decided to sample Morton's version of that great American chophouse aperitif, the martini. Although the restaurant offers a slew of egregious variations -- including one with orange vodka and crème de cacao -- it has the wherewithal to concoct a specimen of classic proportions: ice-cold Boodles gin stirred with a hint of vermouth, scented with a long, slender twist of lemon peel, and served in a glass the size of the Tin Woodman's chapeau. You'll need a big drink to brace yourself against the dining-room mishegoss to come: Low ceilings combine with the chattering of a hundred-plus hungry carnivores and the distant bass of an unidentifiable soundtrack to create a really noisy setting. Despite the elegant, dark-paneled, tuxedoed-waiter ambience, everyone tries to outshout the other. (For respite there are two "Boardrooms" equipped with individual controls for lighting, climate, and sound, available for private groups of 10-32; the Boardroom I peeked into was filled with men in suits as gray as my own, a fair indication of Morton's clientele.)

Fortunately the food excuses a lot. The shrimp cocktail is simplicity itself: four huge, tender prawns arranged around a tart, bracing dipping sauce -- the ideal appetizer. The sea scallops are even better, wrapped as they are in bacon, broiled until smoky-sweet, and served with a terrific apricot chutney edged in horseradish. The salads aren't up to the other starters' high standards, though. The Caesar, while hefty with good, fresh greens, comes scattered with supermarket-level croutons; it betrays not a hint of anchovy and is smothered with a goopy, cheesy dressing. (It isn't prepared tableside, either, a dying art that one hopes might still be practiced in expensive steakhouses, if nowhere else.) The sliced beefsteak tomatoes, thick and meaty though they are, are practically tasteless (I know, I know -- what did I expect in the middle of December?), but the pungent, creamy chunks of blue cheese adorning them are a pleasure unto themselves.

The moment of truth: the steaks. They're the main event, the fulcrum of Morton's global empire. Simply put, they're splendid. These beautifully marbled cuts from Chicago's top-ranked, 2-year-old steers are aged two to three weeks and broiled at up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that sears the flesh and concentrates all that juicy flavor. When you slice effortlessly into, say, the porterhouse (Morton's specialty cut) and transfer the results of all that marbling and aging and broiling and searing into your mouth, you can taste the melting, fatty creaminess in every bite. We opted for the gigantic, inch-plus-thick, 48-ounce porterhouse, which a waiter will carve at your table; though it could feed 12 people, it is served to two. (Morton's also offers a more delicate, 24-ounce version.) Another stellar option: the lamb chops, three of them, each sizable, smoky, moist, and as surprisingly delicate in flavor as the porterhouse.

Morton's is one of those steakhouses where the meat is served au naturel and everything else is an extra mark on your ascending tab. Take the plunge, though: You've got to have a baked potato with your steak. It's a veritable steakhouse mandate -- and Morton's is worth the extra cash. How this Idaho behemoth becomes the fluffiest baked potato you or I have ever tasted is beyond me. It might be the way the waiter wraps it in a napkin and massages it into submission before depositing it on your platter. But it's not only fluffy; it also has the earthy flavor of a truly superior spud, a characteristic properly accented with generous dollops of sour cream and a healthy sprinkling of rich, smoky bacon shards. The hash browns aren't as successful. They appear as a big, round cake comprised of fried potato strips, and they're boringly crunchy throughout except for a few morsels of buttery, moist potato deep inside. The creamed spinach, meanwhile, is as rich, silky, and sweet as it always is, but the sautéed wild mushrooms are the surprise hit of the evening. In the latter, a staggering variety of luscious fungi becomes even more succulent from the dreamy parsley-butter sauce that infiltrates every bite.

For dessert there's a lemon soufflé that's part meringue, part Swedish pancake, and part cumulonimbus. With a bare undertone of citrus and the occasional crunch of sugar as contrast, the soufflé is a triumph, especially with a spoonful of sabayon liqueur; enriched whipped cream helps the ol' cholesterol count along. (The whipped cream and the mushrooms are the best things on the menu; make a meal out of that, I dare you.) Equally transcendent is the Godiva cake, a moist little volcano encompassing rich, dark, molten chocolate and a slew of tiny raspberries, with a scoop of Double Rainbow vanilla melting alongside -- you know, in case you get hungry.

The San Francisco franchise is one of only two Morton's outlets with 500 items on its wine list. The rest make do with a mere 175. The selections include lots of full-bodied cabs, rich merlots, and hearty zins -- primarily from Northern California and from France -- that are appropriately conducive to the eating of red meat. (We declined to partake of the wine.) As befits the establishment's monolithic stature, service tends toward the robotic, although a wire got crossed with my order when the waitstaff neglected to include the mushrooms along with the steak in my requisite doggie bag. I felt like I'd gotten coal in my stocking.

Emerging into the comparatively silent night of downtown San Francisco, my dining partner and I took a quick peek at the Union Square Christmas tree before heading our separate ways. Across the square, Macy's multistoried wreath display blazed and sparkled. Another decked-out cable car filled with carolers edged up Nob Hill. A line of cabs waited in front of the St. Francis, which, as you might guess, looks mighty pretty this time of year. It's a lot colder back in Chicago, I thought to myself, hopping in a taxi and heading back home, the gift of tomorrow's lunch in hand.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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