November 8, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable
Morton’s of Chicago: To Sirloin With Love

        "New York is our kind of town,” trumpets Morton’s of Chicago, “the steakhouse every city wants.” But is Morton’s New York’s kind of cattle station? Are we too snooty, too myopic, too chauvinistic...too rigid for Second City brassiness? Bulls, yes. But cows? Well, let’st give the small-town invaders credit. They’re smart enough not to sell us Chicago cheesecake. Only our hometown S&S baking will do (Morton’s imports it from Brooklyn to feed the hordes in Nashville; Pittsburgh; Tysons Corner, Virginia).

         So it’s dark in here, Chicago style (you can hear Sinatra, but you won’t recognize him if he settles more than a booth away). Still we have our icons: Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia in a photo over our table -- not a pretty picture, but our own. Magnums of great red wine invite hearty thirsts. And all this dark paneling probably just looks like plywood because they stained it that way. Serious eaters are bibbed to the jaw. We’re a hungry herd. Any one of us could eat a cow.

         But our waitress is skittish. She can’t find the cart. What cart? Forget the cart. What about a simple shrimp cocktail? At last, she returns triumphant with a tumble of groceries on a rolling trolley. “This is our famous beefsteak tomato,” she announces, lifting a plumply perfect specimen. “We serve it sliced with purple onion.” She flourishes an actual onion. It is indeed purple. Now she hefts a Saran-wrapped steak -- “our New York strip sirloin.” The filet mignon, the porterhouse, the lamb chops get their salute. Naked meat I understand...but beef in stretch raincoats? Now the chicken -- don’t look too closely. She nuzzles a perfect Idaho in two cupped hands, listing possible potato denouements. Our hidden snickers have escalated into uncontrolled giggles. She never falters. “This is our asparagus,” she says, flashing the green in her left hand. “And our broccoli.” What a trouper. Clearly she’s a pro, imported from the Morton’s in Columbus, Ohio. Trucking with the locals has only mildly unnerved her. She keeps dropping the steak knives, neatly missing our toes.

         But the next laugh is Morton’s. That gargantuan side of cow, that thick double porterhouse carved into chunks off in the shadows, is spectacular. Really rare, fire-glazed, tender but not too, bursting with flavor. As is the sirloin. And our two-and-a-half-pound lobster ($38.95) is cooked to a perfection rarely found in a steakhouse. Maybe the Caesar is a feeble pretender, but Morton’s namesake salad, a toss of iceberg and romaine in creamy excess with anchovy and the equivalent of two chopped hard-boiled eggs on top, is pitifully midwestern. I love it. 

       What can one say about the gestalt of potato skins? I love them, too, and the more fat, the better - butter, sour cream, bacon bits. Hit me again. Chicago’s twist on hashed-browns tastes greasy and twice cooked one night. But a few days later, the fried noodle-cut potatoes are fresh and irresistible. Even the rashly oversalted Lyonnaise tempts. True, the tomatoes are mushy, the asparagus overcooked, the chowder swamp thick, and the fairly good black-bean soup not quite hot. If you order Cajun rib eye steak Valhalla, you’re asking for disdain. You’ll get it. Even the lamb chops taste a bit off. And you can sneer at the fresh-baked balloon of onion-flecked white bread, but you’re probably eat it and like it - a childhood madeleine.

         I’ll bet folks complained about ordering without a menu or a price guide. Urban wise guys like us don’t mind spending $100 each for half a cow and a matching lobster, plus a very good St. Francis Cabernet (at just $25) from an impressive list. We just don’t like surprises. By our second outing (down to a prudent $70 per), there are small cards with entrée prices ($17.95 and up, limitless possibilities for sharing).

         Our waiter, whose baritone lends a fourth syllable to vinaigrette, hands them out - readable by the light of the pewter pigs collapsed on the table. A porktend of our fate. The soufflé tastes like chocolate-scented air, and that mythic cheesecake is too sweet for me. But as long as we’re into overkill, let’s share the devilish chocolate velvet and a Gaviscon nightcap together.

         By the way, two confessions, I’m from Detroit. (Converted New Yorkers are the most arrogant.) And we can’t blame Morton’s for opening with a party honoring big donors of Citymeals-on-Wheels, my pet cause. It just forced me to be tougher.

Morton’s of Chicago, 551 Fifth Avenue (enter on 45th street); 972-3315. Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm; dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 pm to midnight and Sunday 5 to 11 pm

*** 

Eastern Seafood:  Do I Smell the Sea?

         Victual reality, not that far from virtual. I’m in the heart of Zabar’s country, across from the Woolworth’s that’s mutating into a Filene’s Basement. I’m imagining I can smell the sea. The slightly salty Manhattan chowder (looks so homey, tastes so good), the green-and-white checked tablecloths, the crisp fried sea critters with fabulous fat fries...all feed the illusion. Eastern Seafood Co. brings raffish seashore feel to our town, with fish that tastes fresh off the boat, giant lobster tanks, photo blowups of East End seafarers on the walls, and a roster of credits on the back of the menu. A salute to everything from the Seafood Shoppe in Wainscott and East Hampton’s Round Swamp Farm to Old Peconic Brewing Company on Shelter Island.

         Perhaps it’s partly a fairy tale. But Bobby Thomas, a partner here, ran the original Eastern Seafood on East Hampton’s North Main Street before moving on to the Three Mile Harbor Inn. He takes credit for the splendid house-smoked salmon (served in a small cross cut) and “knowing a few guys” at the Fulton Fish Market. So who cares if they’re Cutchogue oysters, when they come lightly crumbed and cleanly fried? And when was the last time you had whole Ipswich clams this luscious? Eons ago, at a beachside stand in Martha’s Vineyard, every bite seasoned by first love. And yet no better than these.

         It hasn’t taken long for hungry West Siders to discover Eastern Seafood. What’s to resist? Honest grub at reasonable prices - $3 for a great cup of soup, fried seafood platters from $9.95, no fish more than $15.95. That’ll buy you a fine bouillabaisse, the freshest grilled swordfish around, or lobster savanah (sic), sautéed with red peppers and mushrooms, then stuffed back into its shell.

         Biscuits chewy as scones are curiously pleasing, as is most everything fried. At times, homey slides into homely. Baked clams are doughy (as in childhood memories), and the special pasta shells with raw sauce - uncooked tomato, garlic chunks, and a puddle of olive oil - are less winning that they were last August, when the tomatoes were perfect. Salads are ordinary or worse. Tuna niçoise, a hopeless gaffe. Lunchtime’s seafood platter gathers glorious shellfish for two. Order the swordfish sandwich (“rarish,” I said, because “rare” means “raw”) and get a generous steak, impeccably fresh, on a toasted roll. With tartar sauce (you may have to ask), it’s summertime at the beach.

         You’ll believe the desserts are homemade when you taste rich chocolate cake minus coulis ennui, or fine strawberry shortcake, heavenly cheesecake with a drift of tangy cream, and the fabulous apple crisp (when not cooked to a mush).

         Parked next to the lobster tanks, I eavesdrop on a young daddy introducing his toddler son: “This is Elmo, the daddy lobster. His job is to tell everyone what to do. And this is Susie, the mommy. Her job is to keep the tank clean. And this is Sammy, the biggest lobster because he eats all his food.” And lurking in the bubbles is Betty, writing The Lobster Mystique

Eastern Seafood Co NYC, 212 West 79th St. Now Closed.

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