Around the time that the Civil War was drawing to a close, the Midwest and West were beginning to raise cattle in what soon became staggering numbers. Local processers soon found themselves overwhelmed by the burgeoning herds, and the ranchers had nowhere else to take their cattle. In response, nine enterprising railroad moguls banded together to form THE UNION STOCKYARDS in Chicago, a facility capable of processing beef from Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas and Montana.
The Union Stockyards grew and thrived for almost a hundred years and became the world’s largest processor of cattle (as well as pork and lamb).
But the most influential accelerator to the stockyards’ growth was the genius of Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour (famous meat names even today). In 1880, they successfully designed the first REFRIGERATED RAILROAD CAR (not only that, they built a nationwide ice-producing infrastructure to service the rail cars). This meant that the finest beef on the planet – midwestern beef – and lots of it could now reach beef lovers as far east as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Check out the diagram of the refrigerated boxcar below: very clever, indeed.
Joanne and I have dined at some of the New York Steakhouses that emerged around this time and thrive to this day…the legendary OLD HOMESTEAD in Chelsea (1868); the midtown temple of meat, KEENS CHOP HOUSE (1885); and of course the one-and-only PETER LUGER (1887).
But Chicago became (and still is) STEAKHOUSE GROUND ZERO with the likes of GENE & GEORGETTI’S (1941), the nation’s poster child for traditional steak and chop houses; a place that has never wandered away from big, perfectly cooked, dry-aged prime steaks, accompanied by sides of broccoli and hash browns large enough to feed the Russian Army.
But in today’s Chicago, a number of folks are experimenting with time-tested traditional steakhouse DNA. Chicago magazine sported a cover earlier this year with the headline, ”Red Meat Revival…A new guard of restaurateurs has shaken up our list of the city’s TOP TEN STEAKHOUSES.”
We ate at a one recently: GT PRIME, situated in the River North neighborhood on North Wells between Superior and Huron.
Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune said, “GT PRIME is either the steakhouse you will avoid…or….the steakhouse you’ve been waiting for.”
I don’t land in either camp. I love the dependability, comfort and tradition of the Old School joints. But I also think that the “chefy” new spots now and then are relished by the best of men.
So how do you navigate a next-gen steakhouse like GT Prime?
For one thing, adjust your eyes because this place is DARK. And once you do acclimate to the moody, high-design interior, don’t waste time looking for a shrimp cocktail – or, for that matter, a loaded baked potato.
Here you’ll start with Steak Tartare capped with mustard seeds and an egg yolk, and served with house-made malt vinegar potato chips. We also ordered the Tuna Tartare, which was pretty much as we expected. But the Chicken Liver Mousse with onion petals and port gelée ($13) was deep, deliciously gamy, and smooth as silk.
Arancini (Italian deep fried rice balls) were generously laced with mortadella and pistachios…hardly Old School steakhouse fare – but appropriate in a place run by executive chef/partner Giuseppe Tentori.
What followed were two iterations of crab: one featuring sliced tomatoes layered over premium lump crab with buratta; the other a combination of avocado and eye-appealing (but not so premium) Jonah crab ($24).
Our granddaughter’s choice proved to be a big hit: Mac & Cheese, prepared with orecchiette, smoky pork belly and broccoli – perfect for adventuresome kids.
Another pasta dish, this in the snout-to-tail Fergus Henderson tradition, was Gnocchi in a “nut-free” basil pesto with morsels of deep-fried sweetbread “croutons.” I would have liked the nuts to have remained in the pesto.
We tried the GT Burger, too. I think it’s a pretty good idea to have a SIGNIFICANT burger on a steakhouse menu, and this one delivered – with onion marmalade, sundried tomatoes, porcini dust and more port gelée. We do a killer burger at MANNY’S and PITTSBURGH BLUE as a budget-friendly alternative on a night out. I wanted to compare theirs with ours. Both are good.
Shishito Peppers and Sweetcorn with Lime and Parmesan, as well as Charred Broccoli with Fried Prosciutto and Maple Butter proved to be worthy sides in keeping with a new age steakhouse.
This IS Chicago, however, which means you can’t abandon the steakhouse workhorses. One of our diners pronounced the Bone-in Ribeye worthy of any steakhouse. The Venison Steak, though perfectly cooked, didn’t fare as well – too chewy. But that’s venison.
The biggest hit was called THE CARNIVORE. A flight of four different 8-ounce cuts served sliced, it showcased a top-notch Beef Filet, Venison, Bison and American Wagyu. It cost a whopping $230, though it’s meant to be shared and it is, after all, two pounds of boneless meat, so maybe $230 is about right. It comes with a SERIOUS STEAK KNIFE…really SERIOUS.
The dessert Cheese Platter and a little-too-pretty-for-a-steakhouse Crème Brulée rounded out our evening.
So did we enjoy it? Hell, yes. Would I go back? SURE. I was amused and in many respects impressed. As a diner, I gravitate toward the Old School steakhouses, but as an operator, it’s essential to experience the cutting edge, and GT Prime is as sharp as any of the New School joints.