Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Chicago Chop House Cuts A Little Deeper

Chicago is famous for hundreds of things. Wrigley Field. The Chicago Theater. The Museum Campus Chicago. And it's also home to one of my favorite steakhouses in the United States.

The story behind Chicago Chop House is as compelling as the menu. Located in an immaculately restored, century-old Victorian brownstone in the popular River North neighborhood, the Chicago Chop House was the brainchild of a successful tavern and former advertising agency owner named Henry Norton in 1986.

Of all his dreams, the Chicago Chop House was the least well-received among family and friends. To them, it didn't make sense to open another steakhouse in a city already defined by Morton's, Gene & Georgetti's, Eli's Place for Steak, and That Steak Joynt.

But after convincing Bill Farrahi, a former chef at Café Bohemia (wild game), to take on a new challenge and Norton's intuitive marketing strategy, the Chicago Chop House quickly became known as a home away from home for travelers. Of course, when I was introduced to it, it seemed to be a blend of both worlds with locals drawn to the live jazz and blues in the smoky first floor bar.

The Steaks Take Center Stage.

What makes the Chicago Chop House great is that the meat is aged and carved on premises. As Farrahi might say, "the cut makes the steak." One important note. The USDA Prime steaks (usually supplied by the Allen Brothers) are wet-aged rather than dry-aged, which creates a very distinct flavor in the 1,100- to 1,500-degree Vulcan broiler.

Not much else has changed since 1986. The Chicago Chop House has 11 cuts of steak and eight seafood entrees. The entrees are not inexpensive, ranging from $28 for a butt steak to $99 for a massive 64 oz. porterhouse. During both of my visits, I had the 16 oz. filet. Most seafood entrees start at $24 with lobster served at market price. Sides are served individual a la cart. (Prices subject to change.)

The desserts are impressive. I was fortunate enough to share a tray prepared by the chef, tasting creations that include white chocolate ice cream with white chocolate chips, turtle cheesecake, homemade carrot cake, homemade apple pie, and a chocolate cake pie. The sampler wasn't on the menu. One member in our party knew the owner.

A Storied Steakhouse In A Storied Neighborhood.

The River North alone makes for an interesting story. While it is now known as a chic cultural hub with art galleries, antique stores and boutiques, it once was the locale for studio artists and writers willing to convert empty warehouses in the 1970s that were left over from what once was a thriving warehouse district and industrial center before that.

The rich history of the area only lends itself to what now is the largest concentration of art galleries in the United States outside of Manhattan. In addition to all the galleries, it is an epicenter for nightlife with its abundant bars, clubs, and restaurants. The Chicago Chop House pays homage to all, with almost every wall lined with photos of eras past.

The Chicago Chop House Cuts A 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Chicago Chop House would have easily scored higher, but it's difficult to ignore some of the recent customer reviews on various sites. (And, it has been a few years since I had business is Chicago). Some of it points to a change in ownership. If that change included Chef Farrahi, I can't imagine.

Most of the lower scores seem to stem from the check before bleeding into other issues: patrons who order specials without knowing prices, indulgent entrees, and rare wines. According to some, the Chicago Chop House is also discouraging shared plates by charging a sharing fee. It's not unheard of, but price conscious patrons might have more fun visiting at lunch. Or, simply put, don't be up sold.

This caution aside, the Chicago Chop House was picked for a retro review because it was cool enough to visit twice on back-to-back nights during my last visit to the Windy City. I cannot recall a restaurant ever earning such a repeat performance (except in Tombstone, but for very different reasons). A few other people agree, including big John Popper from Blues Traveler. While it has no social media program, the Chicago Chop House has a few Facebook fans nonetheless.

As a footnote, it also has an historic wine room deep underground. This underground room was once used to make wine during prohibition. To check for hotels and flights to Chicago, try Fare Buzz also has some Discounted Vacation Packages available.
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