This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go up to Chicago for a weekend getaway. Due to time constraints, I didn’t get to eat at all the places I would have liked. I did make it a goal however to eat at one of the so-called “better” steakhouses that Chicago had to offer. Unfortunately, my wife was adamant of not going to a steakhouse but luckily, Aaron, Haley’s friend’s boyfriend was willing to go with me (thanks Aaron)! However choosing a steakhouse was a bit overwhelming since Chicago is home to literally dozens of steakhouses considered “high end”. To narrow them down, I filtered the criteria based on 1) wasn’t a chain (because I can eat at any high-end chain steakhouse), 2) served USDA Prime graded beef, and 3) was dry aged vs. wet aged.
The first two filters are self-explanatory… Why would one eat at a restaurant that is available back in Nashville and why would I splurge on a steak that wasn’t USDA Prime. When it comes to steaks, I admit that USDA Choice can be just as good, but every now and then, I like treating myself to higher quality beef. USDA Prime is the highest grade beef can obtain and defined as “Highest in quality and intramuscular fat, limited supply. Currently, about 2.9% of carcasses grade as Prime” according to Wikipedia. While that percentage varies according to the source, the bottom line is that very few places sell it and it’s typically reserved for restaurants.
But the 3rd filter, dry aged, is something that I never experienced. I’ve looked around a few times and there’s only one place in the Nashville area that sells a dry aged steak and that’s Whole Foods in Franklin, Tennessee. The problem is that they don’t sell USDA Prime grade. Their dry aged steak is USDA Choice and depending on your cut, it costs $22.99 (New York Strip) or $23.99 (Boneless Ribeye) per pound. I also called a fancy local butcher in Franklin and they do sell USDA Prime steaks, but those steaks are wet aged only. Their cost per pound is $24.99 for a bone-in ribeye. The only place I know to get these dry aged, USDA Prime steaks are online shops with prices around $40 per pound and up. So you can imagine my hesitation of buying even just a $23 one pound steak. I’m not an expert cook so the potential for overcooking it and/or preparing it wrong would be absolutely devastating for me… so I just leave it up to the restaurants to do it. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll have the guts to splurge and try myself…
So you may be asking me, what’s is dry aged beef and why is it special? Aging beef is the method of making meat more flavorful and tender by letting it sit for X amount of days. The methods for doing so is either wet aging or dry aging. Regardless of which method is chosen, tenderizing occurs when natural enzymes in beef act to break down the connective tissue over time. Otherwise, eating fresh beef is not very palatable because it’s very tough & bland for consumption. So yes, the beef you buy in the grocery (especially steaks) are not fresh per se, but wet aged for X amount of days. So with wet aging, you just vacuum seal beef in plastic and let the juices tenderize and break down the tissue within its own packaging. In contrast, dry aging is a much more expensive method where you hang or rack cuts of beef in refrigerated, open air. By doing this, water evaporation causes the beef flavors to be come concentrated at the same time it is being tenderzed naturally. A good explanation of the differences is from an article by Tom Mylan, a butcher & co-owner of a popular butcher shop in NY that he wrote for The Atlantic: Dry vs. Wet: A Butcher’s Guide to Aging Meat.
So with all those steakhouses in Chicago (a handful serve dry aged USDA Prime steaks), which did I go with? David Burke’s Primehouse on 616 North Rush at Ontario. My choice was persuaded by an article by ChicagoMag.com, whose writer described in his article Chicago’s 20 best steakhouses (as of 2008). David Burke is an award-winning chef & restaurateur who owns several restaurants and was featured on Iron Chef twice.
David Burke’s Primehouse is located in The James Hotel in downtown Chicago. As with most fancy restaurants, it’s dimly lit but the interior is a little underwhelming. Not much in terms of decor with the exception of the Himalayan Salt candle holders and lamps. There was a small “mural” painted near the ceiling of the support columns. I suppose the restaurant tries to be posh but if one were to look at it just passing by, you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was just another generic sandwich bistro. Perhaps it’s the limitation of available real estate, but the space is very small as well. In summary, I expected more from a place that served steaks with prices ranging from $46 to $68.
As for the service, downright blasphemous considering the type of restaurant I was visiting. Of all the upscale restaurants I’ve been to (including steakhouses), the service was no different than if you were served at a buffet at Golden Corral. Actually, it was worse because the people at Golden Corral are actually friendlier and more attentive. The hostess couldn’t find my reservation and didn’t make us feel welcome. The waitress started out good (was great in explaining the menu) but after that, we probably saw her twice more after that. The waiter’s assistants were actually more available than she was and there were times when I actually saw her just standing, chit chatting with other servers for periods at a time.
But let’s remember the purpose of this website… it’s all about the food. Everything here is à la carte. I ended up ordering the Bacon Sticks ($9), 55 Day Himalayan Salt Dry Aged Bone-In Ribeye Steak ($64), and Mushrooms & Onions ($7). Aaron ordered the Greshburger ($23).
Honestly, the Bacon Sticks were the best food of the evening. Had I known what was to come after the bacon, I would have done myself a favor and ordered $63 worth of these bacon sticks alone. What you get are five ridiculously thick slabs of Tennessee Benton Bacon, glazed in maple syrup and served upright on sticks with a ramekin of more maple syrup and ground black pepper. I’ve had Benton’s bacon before and I knew what I was getting into. The taste was a perfect blend of meaty bacon, pork fat, saltiness, and sweetness. Even if you just let the slab rest on your tongue, you could literally taste the bacon fat melt in your mouth. If bacon is considered “meat candy”, then this is the ultimate “meat candy”.
Now for the main event. The hype to David Burke’s Primehouse is the fact that they age their beef in-house and that in-house is located in the on-premise cellar. Rather than just the typical temperature controlled meat locker like most dry aging, the walls of the cellar where the steaks are aged are tiled with Himalayan salt. The purpose of this, according to our waitress, is to also control the humidity. The end result is allowing the customer dry aging ranging from 28 days all the way up to 75 days for ribeyes and 35 days for a bone-in sirloin. The cool thing is that they do offer tours of the cellar (reservation only). Pictures of their cellar are available via Google. Anyway, the 55 Day Bone-In Ribeye was the most popular according to our waitress and with her recommendation, I ordered it with a side of mushrooms & onions, which are actually grilled (and not sautéed).
So what did I think of my legendary dry aged steak? A bit underwhelmed actually. The first problem is that it barely had any seasoning on it. I expected at least some salt or pepper but dismissed it as it gave me a chance to taste the steak in its purest form. After a few bites, I was a little perplexed. I question myself to wonder if this really what dry aged tastes like. To be sure, I double-checked with the waitress and made sure she gave me the 55 day ribeye and not the 28 day. She confirmed it was the 55 day and once I heard the news, I was a little sad. All my research on dry aging said that the beef flavor was concentrated with an altered flavor (depending on length of aging) but it wasn’t concentrated to the degree that I would have hoped. Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining anything, I let Aaron try some and he wasn’t impressed either.
I suppose the best way I can explain what I was expecting is when you cook a beef roast in the oven. As the beef drippings fall into the lower pan, a lot of the water evaporates during the roasting process. When you finally pull the roast out of the oven, sometimes you get lucky the drippings aren’t burned out and what’s left is a thick, jelly-like concentrated beef juice. With the drippings you can make gravy, au jus or even a beef pudding (as a topping). If you’ve ever tasted this substance, you’ll notice it’s an incredibly potent flavor of beef. That’s what I expected my steak to taste like because that is what was described to me by various sources. The only problem is that my steak was just a fraction of what I expected. At least the steak was cooked a perfect medium rare and was still very juicy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad steak and there’s definitely a difference in taste between wet vs. dry aging. I just feel that for the price of $64, I could have gone somewhere else… anywhere else and have gotten a better steak at a competitor for less and had some change to spare for perhaps another appetizer or even dessert.
On the flipside, despite the disappointment in the steak, the mushrooms and onions were very good. I liked the fact that they were grilled in a cast iron dish. It was a nice alternative to the standard sautéed mushrooms and onions I’m used to.
On the other side of the table, Aaron was also underwhelmed with his meal. His Greshburger was a burger, cooked medium rare with shaved prime rib, smoked mozzarella on top with a side of onion rings and a ramekin of both Moroccan ketchup and house-made mustard. The best part of his dish was the monstrous onion rings. The batter was light, yet crunchy and the onion underneath was cooked to the perfect tenderness. The Moroccan ketchup is just regular ketchup with additional spices. You can almost describe it as a “lighter” barbecue sauce. This was also good. His burger however, he said had no flavor (as if you just put a burger patty on the grill and not season it whatsoever). Most of the flavor came from his shaved prime rib and smoked mozzarella.
Sad to say, the only way I would ever return to David Burke’s Primehouse again is if someone paid for my meal. With the dozens of choices out there in Chicago with claims as “the best steakhouse”, David Burke’s is definitely not one of them. Of course, I am not totally writing off dry aged steak. Is it overrated? I can’t answer that considering this is my first time. I figure I might give dry aging one or two more chances before ultimately deciding. Maybe I’ll try out a different aging length. But before I go, I would like to leave you readers with this educational snippet. Another article from The Atlantic by freelance writer Mark Schatzker, contributor to Conde Nast Traveler and author of “Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef”: Is Dry Aged Beef Overrated?
|David Burke’s Primehouse
616 North Rush at Ontario
The James Hotel Chicago
Chicago, IL 60611
Bill Total: $88.40 for One (w/o Tip)