The cover of the February issue of Food & Wine features a glorious rib-eye, basted in butter with sprigs of rosemary and thyme and smashed garlic cloves.
"Simple New Steakhouse Recipes: the beef, the sides, the wine," the cover declares, and inside there's a sidebar in which chefs debate the merits of aging steak.
"I want my steak to taste like steak, to have that minerality of the blood and flavor of the animal, not a fermented quality," Grant Achatz says in the story, as he makes the case for not aging steak.
It's a fascinating quote, given that at Next: Chicago Steak, the steak is dry-aged. Chef Dave Beran tells us "the ribeye is aged a minimum of 30 days and it's between 30 and 45 days" and the meat is served "right around medium rare."
Basically, the story is about how at new American steakhouses, a chef's ingenuity is just as important as the beef it's serving. This isn't to say that I should let this article dictate my feelings about Next: Chicago Steak, but considering what these "new" steakhouses are doing to set themselves apart is important to understanding what Next is doing with this menu and how well it succeeds. We're not talking about adding maki to a menu and calling yourself "modern," we're talking about places like M. Wells Steakhouse, an audacious Long Island City restaurant that's an updated homage to the old New York steakhouses, and where you can order French onion soup with bone marrow or a caviar sandwich.
There's some ingenuity on the Next menu, like the oyster dish, a play on oysters Rockefeller, which is topped with cream and Iberico ham, and placed atop a broccoli panzanella salad. But overall, Chicago Steak doesn't go far enough. After all, there's no shortage of places in Chicago to get a very solid steak and for much, much less money. Next needed to do something to set itself apart, and it didn't.
I had two hopes for Chicago Steak: one, that it would take classic dishes, like a wedge salad and creamed spinach and make the greatest versions of those dishes anyone has ever had; or two, that it would completely reinvent the idea of what a steakhouse is, and serve something really innovative and unexpected. It did neither, instead turning its attention to the steakhouse ca. 1930-50.
"I really wanted to become a steakhouse of the time," Beran tells us. "But what I wanted to do with this menu is not put oysters Rockefeller or clams casino on it, since they were signatures of steakhouses of the time and for us to do that would be copying... So we went and created dishes that are similar in style and match trends of the time, but aren't specifically the same as the course. There's an oyster course, there's a clam course, but there isn't oysters Rockefeller or clams casino."
On the whole, I enjoyed eating the steakhouse menu. I liked the creamy oysters a lot. And the salmon coubliac, a Russian dish consisting of salmon wrapped in pastry. I liked the shrimp cocktail, with two large, perfect shrimp that came with a terrific, intense horseradish sauce. I liked the lightly dressed crudités to begin the meal and the baked Alaska that's set on fire tableside. I also liked the steak, but it was just a very good steak and nothing truly exceptional. I absolutely loved the shochu martini to start and the Scotch coffee at the very end. I didn't like the salad, which is made tableside, but the server set up squarely behind my date and I couldn't see any of the theater. I also couldn't taste anything in the underdressed salad, served with flavorless frog legs. Aside from the salad, I didn't have other quibbles with the execution of the food. My concerns are more about the concept itself.
Steak isn't the best choice for a tasting menu. Yes, steakhouses serve an inordinate amount of food, and you regularly leave with plenty of leftovers. But at no steakhouse do you order ten courses of food, nor do you expect to try that many different dishes. By the time the steak, served in a huge portion with three side dishes, arrived, we'd had crudités, bread, shrimp cocktail, oysters, salmon, salad and lobster thermidor. The lobster's spot in the lineup right before the steak is wrong—it's an exceptionally rich dish served before such a huge steak. And there are three courses to come after the steak (we wound up taking most of it home in a doggie bag).
Next's plan to cut down on the amount of food served was to give each diner one of the appetizer courses—a shrimp cocktail, oysters, sweetbreads and mussels, or a clam dish. Initially, you didn't get a choice, but it seems there were enough protests that now you can choose. (Perhaps because Next knew I was coming in, we were each given a shrimp cocktail and then given a choice between the other three; we picked the oysters and mussels.) But still, the menu would have worked better in smaller portions or with a full a la carte format—maybe we'd have opted to share a shrimp cocktail and a salad instead of each getting our own.
That's what my boyfriend and I did when we went to Gene & Georgetti the weekend before our Next meal. The restaurant was founded in 1941, precisely the era Next is trying to re-create, so I wanted to go for comparison's sake. Plus, things have barely changed at that place since it opened.
"The core menu items, like the steaks have remained the same," owner Tony Durpetti tells us. "Portion size and quality have not been touched. We are always adding and taking away a couple of menu items for the change in people's eating habits and tastes."
We ordered a Manhattan and an old-fashioned. We had shrimp cocktail and filet mignon and pasta. We had a slice of spumoni. No, the food isn't as good as at Next, but the restaurant did have the sort of feel that Next wanted to evoke but didn't. "Steakhouses seemed to be more of a party," Beran says. "Regulars would come in and have their spot and everyone knew their name and their drink. It was much more of a see-and-be-seen place." At Gene & Georgetti, it was clear some of the diners were regulars; servers knew their drink orders or would drop by the table to chat.
And was Chicago Steak worth dropping $400-plus when I could spend much less and have a great meal at Bavette's or Primehouse, where I head when I want a large piece of meat? That's a tough call, but I'd say no. I liked the food better than at the Bocuse d'Or dinner, but it didn't feel like a truly special experience that you couldn't replicate elsewhere.
Without that clubby vibe at Next, and without a menu that felt really fresh and innovative, like some of these other "new" steakhouses are doing, Chicago Steak doesn't seem to meet its goals for the theme. It doesn't meet diners' hopes, either.