CHICAGO -- Does the bull that sired your steak matter to you?
It does if you're David Burke, the New York City chef who has been called the Willy Wonka of haute cuisine.
Burke has recently applied his brand of whimsy to the staid, lionized steakhouse, and in Chicago no less, home to meaty stalwarts such as Gibson's and Morton's (MRT) .
"There's not always room for another restaurant, but there's always room for a good restaurant," says Burke, recognizing the fact that the Windy City is home to some of the best artery-clogging prime-rib spots around.
And although David Burke's Primehouse aspires to be one of the best steakhouses in a cutthroat world of Morton's,
Ruth's Chris Steak House
Smith & Wollensky
( SWRG) and other steakhouse powers, "we're not there yet," he admits.
But it's not for lack of trying.
The journey to a Burke-worthy cut of meat begins with Prime, the 2,500-pound bull he and business partner Stephen Hanson bought to give birth to the restaurant's prime meats.
The proud animal is ranked in the top 2% of the active Angus bulls in the United States, and he's being mated with premium heifers at Creekstone Farms in Campbellsburg, Ky.
"It's not over the top, it's ahead of the game. It's the wave of the future," says Burke. "I want to know that I don't have to worry about mad cow disease. I want to know that the animals were raised in humane and safe conditions.
"Don't you?" he asks.
Burke's enthusiasm for Prime and his offspring is infectious, but this man is much more than a heifer huckster. He truly believes in the power of food, able to describe the sensation of delicate flavors as though they are evidence of a higher power -- and after listening to him riff about the transcendent first bite, I was the newest convert to the church of flavor.
"You can age something forever ... and you can't take a
bad cut of meat and make it great," he says. "You can make it good. But the greatness all starts with the bull."
In addition to having the best stud around, he says the allure of "umami" makes for a great steak. This aromatic fifth flavor was recognized first by the Japanese, and can be found in Parmesan cheese, seaweed and well-aged meats.
Primehouse steaks are kissed with umami during their essential pit stop in the restaurant's on-site, salt-tiled aging room. For about 30 days, the steaks dry-age to develop this savory, mineral-infused essence.
Steaking His Claim
Burke's career began with none of the shine it now enjoys: There were no Batmanesque caves of salt or high-bred herds at the start.
After a job as a dishwasher, he "got hooked" on the notoriously fast-paced, tough and unforgiving restaurant lifestyle. The New Jersey native trained at the Culinary Institute of America and refined his skills in France.
Burke honed his art as a Smith & Wollensky star, eventually opening the chic David Burke & Donatella in New York, as well as a restaurant in Bloomingdales.
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From humble beginnings came the twists on traditional fare that have made him famous among gastronomes, including a candied lemon-smothered Angry Lobster, salmon pastrami and his signature pretzel-encrusted crab cake.
The cheesecake lollipop tree -- a whimsical collision of confection and architecture -- helped seal his reputation as a culinary innovator and inspired a slew of nicknames that summon everything from Roald Dahl to rock 'n roll.
"Someone even called me the Bruce Springsteen of chefs," he grins. "I'll take it. It's a hell of a lot better than 'he's a perfectionist at seasoning.' "
But before visiting Primehouse, I was a little concerned. Lollipop trees and foie gras/oxtail dumplings aside, all that matters at a steakhouse is the meat. And Burke admits that it took a lot of discipline to keep the Primehouse menu from being too clever by half.
"It was important to stay true to the steakhouse. I know that when I go for steak, I want a great piece of meat, some creamed spinach and maybe some mashed potatoes," he said. "You shouldn't even need a menu when you walk in."
Where's the Beef?
Entering the restaurant, which is part of the St. James hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by a warmer ambiance than what typical hotel restaurant houses.
Sinking into an enormous leather banquette, hidden behind a 10-Commandments-sized menu, the steakhouse essence of the Primehouse was an immediate comfort. The decor whispered in reassuring tones that the rib-eye would be more than eye candy, and that there would be no funny business with my surf and turf.
Burke keeps it simple, sprinkling the choices with some signature appetizers and kickers like fill-your-own doughnut holes. The menu's main dishes stuck to the basics: a classic filet mignon, a New York sirloin, a porterhouse and a rib-eye.
On all fronts, the restaurant's porterhouse met and even exceeded nearly every metric used to judge a good steak. It was succulent, silky in texture and decadently rich. It made the already superfluous complimentary steak sauces (who puts sauce on a quality cut of meat?) seem obscene. And it made you think that the heart attack might just be worth it.
On the other hand, the New York sirloin was good, but not great. It took a little more gnawing than I would have liked, and it lacked the depth of mineral flavor and sweetness that the porterhouse had. Inoffensive and forgotten, it was the gastronomic equivalent of a company that has a decent quarter, but doesn't blow away the numbers.
However, it would be hard to get too upset about the meal, which included a Caesar salad made tableside that would make Julia Child proud. Topped with crab-cake croutons, it made the palate sing.
The Kobe beef sashimi served on a block of Himalayan salt with truffle sauce and mushroom chips melted like a pat of butter on the tongue; the sides were as good as can be expected when all you really want is red meat.
And the wine list was vast, well put together and reasonably priced. All the little details were in order, right down to a list of fantastic cocktails. (Try the Manhattan Redux, a soothing glass of leather-infused Maker's Mark as a twist on the traditional.)
While squelching a hit of chocolate sauce in my fresh-from-the-fryer doughnut hole, I had to agree with Burke. It's not yet the best. But all the right ingredients are there, and in short order, Primehouse should live up to Burke's vision, successfully bridging the gap between prime steak joint and font of inventive cuisine.