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Style / Restaurants : Beef, Pure And Simple

June 18, 1995

Food cravings are mysterious. I can go for months without even thinking about steak and then, one day, find myself experiencing such a surge of longing for a charred, blood-red sirloin that I have to stop everything and indulge it. It used to be I could call the butcher, get a bag of hardwood charcoal, buy a bottle of Bordeaux and I'd be set. But the neighborhood butcher who ages and cuts his own prime beef is going the way of the spotted owl. And for me, a steak has to be well-marbled, corn-fed prime. For that kind of supreme meat experience these days, you have to go to a specialist, i.e. a top steakhouse.

When you walk into the latest Morton's of Chicago steakhouse, the 30th in the chain, you'd think you had walked into the one in Beverly Hills. (Note that the Beverly Hills restaurant is called Arnie Morton's of Chicago, to distinguish it from the trendy Melrose Avenue spot, Mortons.) On the left is the gleaming open kitchen, where impeccably attired chefs tend the broiler, its temperature reaching a roaring 1,500 degrees--all the better to sear the gorgeous hunks of beef lined up on a stainless steel counter. There are the same beige leather booths along the wall, places already set with big, mean-looking steak knives.

Wait, there's more. Your waiter will give what's called a "tableside presentation of the menu," which involves pulling an overladen cart up to the table and launching into a frantic, scripted spiel, holding up beefsteak tomatoes big as beach balls, russet potatoes that have to weigh in a a pound or more tomake the cut, broccoli bunches the size of small trees. And finally, the steaks, modestly attired in plastic wrap. the presentation seems to go on forver, and once is more than enough. Next time you can cut gratefully to the chase.

You don't go to Morton's for the scene or the people-watching. Everyone is too intent on eating to notice anyone else. The steakhouse does have the token lobster and swordfish, but that would be as satisfying as eating from the vegetarian menu at Patina during game season. You go to Morton's for one reason: to eat steak. And the choices are quite simple--Porterhouse or New York sirloin strip, filet or rib eye. Everything else is incidental.

For an appetizer, take the oysters straight up, undoctored by either the pedestrian cocktail sauce or the accompanying miniature bottle of Tabasco. Beefsteak tomato, sliced thick and topped with purple onion and a splash of vinaigrette, makes a refreshing first course. But the famous Morton's salad is overkill in the ingredient department and overdressed.

As far as I'm concerned, the only steaks to consider are the Porterhouse--which is sirloin on one side of the bone, filet on the other, which makes each bite varied and interesting. Make that preferably for two, (all 48 ounces!). Or the New York strip, for those who care more about flavor than tenderness. The double filet is a daunting piece of meat. So tender, it's like cutting through butter, but eating quickly becomes monotonous work; every bite tastes exactly the same. The ribeye falls short in both flavor and texture. But they sure know how to cook a steak here. Whatever you request, it's usually dead on. And rare is really rare.

Beware the side dishes. The waiter will inquire, "What kind of potato? Broccoli or asparagus? Or would you like spinach sauteed with mushrooms?" and say nothing when everyone orders a potato dish--and a vegetable or two. What's not mentioned is that that plate of asparagus is $6.95, more than enough for the entire table and that the potato dishes each add $4.25 to your bill.

Potato skins come looking like two dugout canoes, ready to load with butter, sour cream, the works. That baked Idaho looks even more mammoth close up, impossible to finish. Lyonnaise potatoes, sauteed with onions, are greasy--hard going after a few bites, but hashed browns are wonderful, a crisp golden disk of grated potatoes, more like rosti than the usual dismal diner hash browns. Fat spears of asparagus come with a sauce boat of good Hollandaise, but the poor spinach is tricked up with sugar.

Morton's extensive wine list is strong on red wines, especially California Cabernets. A deep, rich Cabernet or a big Bordeaux with steak is one of the great foolproof food and wine matches. Still, the wine list offers few bargains.

Proceed to dessert at your own peril. If you have cleaned your plate, you won't have room. But if you forge ahead anyway, you'll surely be disappointed. Key lime pie, which sounds light and refreshing after all that meat, tastes more of cornstarch and sugar than lime. Cheesecake is ordinary; apple "crumble" dreary and ice cold. And the signature souffles? Merely dull.

As formulaic and interchangeable as airports, the experience at this and every other Morton's I've visited is remarkably consistent. What they do well, they do very well. And where they fall short, they fall consistently short. The best strategy is to pass up the frills and keep your eyes on the prize: steak.

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MORTON'S OF CHICAGO

CUISINE: Traditional steakhouse. AMBIENCE: Classic uptown decor, dim lighting and an open kitchen. Extremely noisy. BEST DISHES: oysters on the half shell, beefsteak tomato and onion salad, Porterhouse for two (48 ounces!), New York strip sirloin, hash browns, asparagus. WINE PICKS: 1992 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir, 1991 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon. 1661 Sunflower Ave., South Coast Plaza Village, Santa Ana; (714) 444-4834. Closed weekends for lunch. Dinner for two, food only, $52-$92.Corkage, $15. Complimentary valet parking.

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