Everything at Morton's of Chicago is big: big wine list, big steak knives, and, most of all, big steaks.
Our first peek at the meat came during what the Tower City establishment calls its "visual menu presentation," a silly distraction wherein a humorless waitress methodically introduced us to behemoth slabs of raw meat arranged on a rolling surgical, I mean serving, cart. After making her memorized pitch for the many steak options, the unsmiling server launched into an even more tedious description of the side dishes, finally reaching under the cart to produce a gigantic raw Idaho potato, a fat tomato, and a big red onion, as if we might be aliens who otherwise wouldn't know a vegetable when we saw it.
Unfortunately, we couldn't give her recitation our full attention, because our thoughts were focused on poor "Larry the Lobster," a three-pound crustacean that was undergoing its death throes on the serving cart, before our wondering eyes. After the show-and-tell, Larry et al were wheeled away, and we were left to recover our composure and make our selections from a conventional written menu.
As you know, Diary, my mission over the next three days is to find the meat that can't be beat among three of Cleveland's leading chain steak houses: Morton's of Chicago, Cleveland-based Hyde Park, and New Orleans's Ruth's Chris.
This evening's meal at Morton's was the first stop on my gastronomic investigation, and it has left the door wide open for the competition.
Morton's steaks are U.S.D.A. Prime cuts of Midwestern corn-fed beef that are dusted with a blended seasoned salt, charbroiled to order at high temperatures, and rushed to the table directly from the open kitchen.
The signature steak is a 24-ounce Porterhouse, a giant T-boned cut with a filet on one side and a strip steak on the other. Despite its size, the medium-rare Porterhouse was a disappointment. While the filet side was fairly tender, the strip was tough, with a dry, mushy texture. And both sides contained a surprising amount of gristle. The steak had a mild, pleasant grilled flavor, but was notably salty.
A medium-rare 20-ounce strip steak was better. Nearly two inches thick, it had a clearly defined pink center of fine-grained, firm meat. While not exactly juicy, the steak was tender and had a fuller, more beefy flavor than the Porterhouse, though it, too, was salty.
Although they carry hefty $30 price tags, the steaks are accompanied by only a watercress garnish. Salads and potatoes are à la carte.
We loved the big, crisp Morton's Salad--a blend of head lettuce and Romaine coated with a creamy blue cheese dressing and topped with buttery croutons. An equally large Caesar Salad was tossed with a wonderful, authentic-tasting Caesar dressing and decorated with a couple of tongue-tickling anchovies.
A huge baked potato was perfectly done, with a soft texture and a clean, honest taste. The spud came with a choice of butter, bacon bits, or sour cream. An order of chunky mashed potatoes--easily enough for two diners--was very thick and could have used a little more milk and butter.
Morton's large wine list is extraordinarily pricey, with several "special occasion" bottles ranging into the thousands of dollars. A 1995 Round Hill Merlot, a red that retails for around $8 a bottle, cost $6.50 a glass.
"The ultimate expense-account restaurant, well-suited to the needs of ballplayers and the idle rich," we declared.
Saturday, March 13
When we arrived for our 6:30 p.m. reservation, downtown Cleveland's Hyde Park Steak House was still nearly empty. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that I had invited a distinguished gentleman as my dining companion and had pulled on a tres chic frock of my own, our hostess marched us to the very last table in the "Siberian Room," in the furthest corner of the restaurant. When we demurred, she found us a better table in the middle dining room, but not without some grumbling.
Still, nothing could prevent us from savoring our perfect steaks.
The Porterhouse was a 20-ounce cut of U.S.D.A. Prime. The medium-rare meat was moist and tender on both sides of the bone, without a trace of gristle or waste. Although the steak had been dusted with a seasoning blend prior to cooking, the major flavor notes seemed to come from the beef's own juices--not from salt.
A 22-ounce bone-in Kansas City Strip, the house specialty, was even better. More than one-and-a-half inches thick, the steak had been deeply grilled, and savory bits of crisp, charred juices still adhered to the surface. Inside, the meat was absolutely succulent, bursting with sweet, buttery juices. Ordered medium-rare, the steak was rosy-red and meltingly tender throughout. Other than the bone, there was not one whit of waste.
At Hyde Park, the cost of the steak includes a choice of a basic Greek or mixed-greens salad, and baked or garlic-mashed potatoes. As an added grace note, the steaks arrive garnished with a generous helping of crisp, thinly cut fried onion rings.
The salads, though not as large as the ones at Morton's, were fresh and quite good, and our servings of potatoes, while marginally smaller than at Morton's, were still generous. The baked potato came with butter or sour cream, but was mealy-textured and undistinguished. The mild garlic mashed potatoes had been whipped until almost smooth and were light and tasty.
Hyde Park's extensive wine list includes some reasonably priced choices. We enjoyed a glass of 1996 Rodney Strong Cabernet for $6.50, the same price we had paid for a less distinguished Merlot the night before. The Cabernet retails for around $14 a bottle.
"A great steak dinner at a fair price," we proclaimed.
Sunday, March 14
The only way our meal at Ruth's Chris Steak House, in Woodmere Village's Eton Collection, could exceed our Hyde Park experience, we decided, would be to offer equally wonderful meat with more doting service. To judge from tonight's meal, the restaurant is halfway there.
Ruth's large, dimly lit main dining room is classically elegant, with an open floor plan that eliminates any chance of getting a "bad" table. Our pleasant, efficient, and very professional waitress made us feel welcomed and well-cared-for. Manager Jim O'Brien also generated a pleasurable air of hospitality by making several circuits of the room to check on diners' satisfaction and to share a friendly word.
The steaks weren't bad, either, though they didn't measure up to the standards set the night before. As with the other steak houses, Ruth's cuts are U.S.D.A. Prime. The corn-fed beef is sprinkled with salt and pepper, charbroiled at 1,800 degrees, seasoned with butter and parsley, and brought to the table on a sizzling 500-degree platter. Those plates keep the steak warm throughout the meal, but the downside is that the meat continues to cook. What began on my plate as a medium-rare strip steak was edging toward medium-well awhile later.
The 16-ounce strip was tender and firm but not particularly juicy. It had a mild grilled taste, with an insistent undertone of black pepper.
The menu's Porterhouse, a double-sized 44-ounce cut for two, is carved in the kitchen and brought to the table on a serving dish. The big steak was tender, but not terrifically flavorful, and had a few gristly bits that had to be pushed to the side.
Ruth's salads and potatoes are à la carte. A salad of mixed greens, with wedges of mushy tomatoes and curls of carrots in a spicy Creole French dressing, was snappy and sharp-flavored. Milder-flavored and more unusual was a fresh asparagus and hearts of palm salad, in a light, sparkling olive oil vinaigrette.
A one-pound baked potato came with a choice of bacon, cheese, butter, or sour cream, and was tender and smooth-fleshed. A large order of delicious mashed potatoes was robustly seasoned with butter and garlic, and nearly as light as a cloud.
The annotated wine list earned it a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 1997 and reflects some very conservative markups. We enjoyed a bottle of 1995 Chateau Bel Air Bordeaux, which retails for around $14 to $20, for the reasonable price of $28.
"A pleasant spot we would try again," we agreed.
Monday, March 15
My weekend "steak out" is all over now, and here's how it stacks up:
Best Steaks; Best All-Around Value: Hyde Park Steak House.
Best Wine Values; Best Service; Most Lovely Dining Room: Ruth's Chris Steak House.
Best Salad: Morton's House Salad.
Best Baked Potato: Morton's.
Best Mashed Potato: Ruth's Chris.
Now pass the oat bran and don't mention beef for a long, long time!
Morton's of Chicago (three Ohio locations). The Avenue at Tower City, 230 Huron Road NW, Cleveland. 216-621-6200. Call for hours.
Hyde Park Steak House (six Ohio locations). 123 Prospect Avenue W, Cleveland. 216-344-2444. Call for hours.
Ruth's Chris Steak House (two Ohio locations). 28699 Chagrin Boulevard (The Eton Collection), Woodmere Village. 216-595-0809. Call for hours.
Morton's Hyde Park Ruth's Chris
Porterhouse Steak $29.95 $26.95 $58 (for two)
Strip Steak $29.95 $30.95 $26.95
Baked Potato $4.50 included with entree $4.25
Mashed Potatoes $4.50 included with entree $4.25
Side Salad $5.95 included with entree $4.