A few weeks ago, the C.O.O. for Cambridge Audio and a private consultant working on future initiatives for the company came to Chicago to visit some dealers. Since Chicago is part of my territory, I was the one who picked them up and squired them around town for the day. After a long day of meetings, Peter from Cambridge Audio, and the consultant, Vincent - both Brits, and like most Europeans I know - declared that they were ready for a big Midwestern steak. They were staying at the Hilton O'Hare and not far from there is one of the Morton's steakhouses. I'd never eaten at a Morton's, even after all the years of traveling to Chicago. Since Peter was picking up the check that evening, I decided to drive to the Morton's in Rosemont (see map).
(As an aside - for you crime drama and football fans out there - Morton's in Rosemont was the place where Chicago Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd was arrested by federal agents and charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine after an undercover sting operation mere days after our visit there.)
Morton's The Steakhouse is one of the more famous steakhouses in the Chicago area, now with 77 locations in 26 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and six countries. Morton's was founded in 1978 by Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton who opened his first restaurant - the Walton Walk - between Rush and Michigan in downtown Chicago in the 1950's. Morton, who grew up learning the restaurant business from his father who ran a restaurant on the south side of Chicago, soon became close friends with Hugh Hefner, helping him start his Playboy Enterprises of clubs, restaurants and resorts in 1960. As a VP for Playboy, Morton helped open dozens of Playboy Clubs around the world.
In 1974, along with partner Klaus Fritsch, whom he worked with at Playboy, Morton opened Arnie's, an upscale and tony restaurant on the near-north side of Chicago that catered to high-dollar Gold Coast residents. In 1978, Morton opened his first Morton's the Steakhouse on State Street, near the corner of Rush St. Business was slow at first, until one Frank Sinatra began to frequent the place during his visits to Chicago. Being able to see Frank Sinatra at Morton's suddenly made it a hot place. That's when people began to find out that Morton's served USDA Prime, thick cut, dry-aged steaks.
Business flourished before Morton sold his interest in Morton's The Steakhouse to the Quantam Group in 1987, prompting the expansion of the Morton's brand name nationwide. Morton closed his namesake Arnie's restaurant in 1994 after his lease ran out and died 11 years later suffering from Alzheimer's. His son, Peter, is the founder of the Hard Rock Cafe chain of bars and restaurants. Another son, Michael, is the head of the N9NE group of upscale contemporary steakhouses in Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas. His daugther, Amy, ran the now-closed Mirador and The Blue Room establishments in Chicago. And another son, David, is behind the Pompei Italian restaurants in Chicago, as well as one of the partners in the DMK Burger Bar restaurants (see my entry on DMK Burger here). Continuing in the family tradition, Morton's grandson, Harry, is the owner of the Pink Taco restaurants in Las Vegas and Los Angeles (see my entry on the Las Vegas Pink Taco here).
It was recently announced that the investment group who owns the Morton steakhouses - including investment company Castle Harlan - will sell the restaurants to Houston-based restaurateur Tilman Ferttita, the man who is behind the Landry's and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. (To see my entry on a visit to Landry's in Las Vegas, click here.) The deal was supposed to be consummated earlier this month, but I haven't seen any confirmation of that happening.
(As an aside, I have somewhat of an aversion to both Landry's and Bubba Gump. If they were the absolute last option for dinner, I may go there. But I try to stay away from either after bad service and food experieces at both places in the past. I'm hoping Fertitta keeps Morton's the way it is.)
The Morton's in Rosemont is located near the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, in the flight path of planes landing at O'Hare. As you enter the restaurant, you go into the upper level of their 12-21 bar (all Morton's have a 12-21 bar, which pays homage to the date the first Morton's opened on December 21, 1978). A hostess greeted us and ushered us down a wide and winding staircase to the dining area downstairs. As we were being shown to a booth, we passed the open kitchen where they had slabs of strip steaks on an open tray, daring us to order them on the spot.
The picture above right is literally the menu at Morton's. The waitperson brought out a large tray of aged steaks - New York strip, ribeye, porterhouse, filet, T-bone and bone-in ribeye. She also had a live lobster staring at me at a plate on the side. After describing the cuts of meats and fresh seafood they had to offer at Morton's that evening, she also had a number of side dishes that they serve family style. She eventually handed us small paper menus, but by that time I was already to order up.
I ordered the 20 oz. New York strip, rare. I chose sauteed mushrooms for the side and for a starter I got a center cut iceberg wedge salad. Vincent also went with the New York strip, medium rare. He ordered a cup of the lobster bisque for a starter and got a side order of the steak fries for the table. Peter went with the smaller of the two filets (10 oz. versus 16 oz.), medium rare, as well. He ordered oysters on the half shell for an appetizer and got a side of steamed asparagus (grilled asparagus is also available).
I was heartened to hear that Vincent fancied beer over wine. Although a nice bottle of red from Morton's extensive wine list would have been nice, we all three ended up ordering bottles of Sierra Nevada's Torpedo India pale ale. The Brits love their hoppy beer and the Sierra Nevada Torpedo did not disappoint.
My wedge salad was absolutely fabulous. It was topped with a creamy bleu cheese dressing with large chunks of bleu cheese. It had fresh chopped tomatoes, crisp chopped bacon and even more chunks of bleu cheese on the top. I had the waitperson load it up with fresh crack black pepper. It was a massive amount of greens to eat. So much so that I was still trying to put a dent into it when our steaks showed up at the table.
Vincent said the lobster bisque was "outstanding". He said it was creamy and rich with large chunks of lobster meat. And Peter said his oysters were very good, as well.
The steaks, in a word, were awesome. My New York strip was cooked perfectly - red rare with a cool center. It was lean, flavorful and overly tender. The sauteed mushrooms were a great complement to the great steak. We passed around the sides and the steak fries were large and crispy on the outside, but moist inside with a great potato taste. The asparagus was cooked perfectly (I always seem to overcook asparagus - this still had a little *snap* to each bite).
Vincent and Peter both said their steaks were great. Peter told me prior to going to Morton's that they had eaten at the Tornado Club in Madison, WI the night before (see my entry on the Tornado Club here) and said that it would be tough to beat that meal. But Peter told me afterward, "The Tornado Club was outstanding, but this may have been the best steak I've ever had."
The service at Morton's the Steakhouse was exemplary. The maitre d' AND the restaurant manager both stopped by to ask how everything was and to thank us for coming in. The maitre d' asked me, "How was your steak cooked, sir? To your liking? Not overcooked?"
I told him it was perfect and he said, "I'll let the chef know." And he walked right over to the open kitchen, leaned over the counter and mentioned something to the chef. The chef turned and gave him a "thumbs up".
We closed the place down that evening, savoring our great meal, talking strategy and rehashing the days meetings. As we left, everyone we encountered - from our waitperson, to the manager, to maitre d', to the bartender, to one of the cooks in the kitchen, to the hostess who took us down to the dining room in the first place were all overly expressive with their sincere appreciate for our business. It didn't appear phony or forced at all. My first experience with eating at a Morton's was a real treat. I'm sure the meal wasn't cheap, but it was worth every penny Peter paid for it that evening. I hope I get a chance to go back to a Morton's again at some point.