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Beefing Up

In a meat-and-potatoes mood? Morton's in Santa Ana (by way of Chicago) is a prime spot to splurge.

March 19, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Morton's of Chicago calls itself the great American steakhouse, and O.C. heartily agrees. I have dined at the Morton's in South Coast Plaza Village three times in the last month without seeing a single empty table.

Its terrific prime steaks are famous; on the other hand, Morton's is no restaurant for quiet conversation. Between the enthusiastic conviviality and clattering silverware, it may be the loudest in the county. The upside is that it's probably our best spot for people-watching. The well-dressed crowd would look at home at any New York or Chicago hot spot.

You sit in cushy coffee-colored leather booths or at tables covered in bright, crisp linen. The lighting is soft and the service impeccable. Smartly clad waiters work in teams of two, with a handful of tuxedoed maitre d's lurking in the shadows for whenever a table is in need of special attention.

Service revolves around a rolling cart stocked with raw steaks and seafood. A waiter will make a long presentation, describing literally everything on the menu from appetizers to desserts. Personally, I can do without this spiel, which goes on for three or four minutes, but most people find themselves mesmerized by the big, beautiful chunks of meat (presented in see-through plastic wrap, as mandated by our ever-zealous health inspectors).

The steaks are simply first-rate. Every cut is aged in a special locker for about three weeks to make it more flavorful. Morton's uses a vertical broiler that heats to more than 1,500 degrees, so the meats cook quickly with a minimum of shrinkage. The result is ultra-tender, full-flavored steaks. If you ask for one rare, you get it exactly as you asked or the waiter whisks it back to the kitchen at the speed of light.

But the real magic is in the word "prime." All Morton's steaks are USDA Prime, the category of beef with the highest degree of marbling, or distribution of fat in the meat; marbling has everything to do with flavor and tenderness in broiled meat. The New York strip and tenderloin seem the leanest, the rib eye the most heavily marbled.

The first thing you'll eat is the unusual house bread, a round, onion-topped loaf with a crumb as yellow as traditional Jewish challah's. The appetizers suit a steak dinner well. My favorite is the buttery-textured salmon, carved to order, which the restaurant procures from Seattle.

Among the others, Cockenoe oysters on the half shell are wonderfully fresh, but the fresh lump crab meat cocktail is served in plain chunks, and the meat itself doesn't have much taste. I did like the pureed black bean soup--a smoky, chicken-based soup laced with chopped onions and garnished with sour cream at the table. Morton's salad, a big pile of romaine lettuce topped with chopped eggs, blue cheese and anchovies, isn't one of those combinations that really works.

But oh, those steaks. The house specialty is a double filet mignon served with a textbook Bearnaise sauce, and when I say you can cut this baby with a fork, I mean it. Just behind it in terms of irresistibility is the rib eye, a 1-pound beauty that squirts juices when cut. The New York strip might just have the purest steak flavor, but the one I tried had a little toughness and gristle around the edges. If you want to hedge your bets, there's a huge Porterhouse that is half New York, half filet mignon.

Not everyone in a dinner party might want steak, so there are two standout alternatives. One is a flame-broiled Block Island swordfish steak, just about the best piece of swordfish I've ever tasted. The other is a dish called shrimp Alexander, for which six giant prawns are rolled in buttered, seasoned bread crumbs and baked.

I'm also a fan of the restaurant's potato and vegetable dishes. Good fresh vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus come with a feather-light Hollandaise. The sauteed spinach is especially good if you have the kitchen add fresh mushrooms.

But nothing tops the incredible hash brown potatoes. We're talking world-class hash browns, served as one crunchy, golden, LP-sized disc. The recipe calls for shredded potato, minced onion, a scandalous amount of butter and plenty of salt. These potatoes are so good you just know they must be bad for you.

So why not go for broke? Put your steak on top and have them with steak juices soaked right in.

If you can find room for dessert, pass on the unremarkable and slightly weighty souffles in favor of another house specialty: molten Godiva chocolate cake. This round, rich cake is served hot from the oven, and a little lava flow of molten chocolate oozes out when the cake is cut. It's thoroughly delicious. High marks also to the Key lime pie, pungent with lime and topped with a thick layer of fresh whipped cream.

Wines are taken seriously here--so seriously that Morton's provides wine lockers for regular customers who don't want to limit themselves to the extensive list of California red wines. After dinner, you can choose a digestif from another big list stocked with ports, Cognacs and single-malt Scotches.

The good life is alive and well at Morton's of Chicago, and whether there might be greater American steakhouses somewhere, I'm not in any mood to argue.

Morton's of Chicago is very expensive. Appetizers are $7.95 to $10.50. Entrees are $19.95 to $28.95. Vegetables are $4.25 to $6.95.

BE THERE

Morton's of Chicago, 1661 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana. (714) 444-4834. Dinner Monday-Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m., Sunday 5-10 p.m. All major cards.

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