It's getting to be crunch time for holiday shopping, so you can expect massive crowds in our area malls and shop-heavy neighborhoods. Which doesn't concern me, frankly, but dining out after a day of retail madness does.
So I decided to pay a visit to three relative newcomers to Chicago's dining scene. All are steakhouses, all are part of national chains, and all are located where holiday shoppers and visitors will be in large number: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, which just completed its first year in Chicago, just steps away from the Magnificent Mile; Perry's Steakhouse & Grill, which made its debut last month at Oakbrook Center mall in Oak Brook; and III Forks, which arrived in Chicago at the end of 2011 in the little-known Lakeshore East area, across the street from Millennium Park and a short stroll from Loop businesses.
This group hit town last year, moving into the building that housed the old Esquire Theater, and they did it with class. Though the interior was necessarily a floor-to-roof gut job, the renovation preserved the building's exterior, right down to the still-extant "Esquire" sign out front. Inside the front room is the theater's original marquee, and there are more subtle design touches that hint at the building's history.
What isn't subtle is the glass wine tower, which sits in the center of the dining room and rises 47 feet toward the ceiling; a spiral staircase winds through the center of the tower, and from time to time you can see runners fetching bottles and customers receiving an impromptu tour. (Fun fact: The tower doesn't rest on the floor, because it can't support the weight of all those wine bottles; instead the tower is hung from the roof trusses.)
It's a visual testament to the restaurant's commitment to wine, and, indeed, you won't be seated long before you're alerted that a sommelier is standing by, ready and eager to give advice. And that's a good idea, given the size of the wine list, notable for its trove of cult wines (there's a $5,000 bottle of Screaming Eagle I have my eye on, as soon as my lottery ship docks).
Starters include very tender Shanghai calamari, the Asian designation fair warning for its stealth spiciness, though it's not extreme. The crab cake is massive, generous with crabmeat and surrounded by an ultrarich lobster sauce; were it several degrees less salty, I'd love it.
On to the steaks. The 22-ounce bone-in prime rib-eye ($54) is big and beautiful, served on a long platter to accommodate the comically long, frenched bone; the 22-ounce bone-in prime strip ($55) isn't as dramatic in appearance, but it's a terrific steak, and both boast excellent beefy flavor. Much milder, by design, is the tomahawk veal chop ($55), a gorgeous piece of meat, and, if available, the lobster mashed potatoes (a recurring special) make for an indulgent (the half portion is $20) side dish. Desserts are predictably massive; don't even think of ordering more than one for two or three people. The lemon doberge cake wasn't life changing, but it was serviceable.
Service is so attentive that if you people-watch even a bit, someone will hustle over to see if you need anything. And even if you cheap out on the wine selection (I grabbed close to the least-expensive red they had), servers act as if you'd ordered the Screaming Eagle.
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, 58 E. Oak St., 312-888-2499. Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday.
The post-hours Oakbrook Center shopper has an embarrassment of dining options. The mall has Maggiano's, Mon Ami Gabi, Reel Club, Cheesecake Factory and Seasons 52, among others. Wildfire is already a major steak player here, and right across the street are Gibsons and Mike Ditka's. And a little bit farther down the road you'll find Weber Grill, Capital Grille and Harry Caray's waiting.
Four-week-old Perry's Steakhouse looks like it can run with this crowd. Perry's has four locations in Texas, but Oak Brook is its first out-of-state store (though Denver will be opening soon). Being the new kid in town hasn't kept the locals from flocking to it by the dozens.
It's not hard to see the appeal. The dining room is so dimly lit, it seems like a romantic throwback, though when it's full it's too noisy to consider it for romance. But with spacious tables, white and brown tablecloths, amber and red tones observable here and there — spending time here isn't hard to contemplate.
The steaks here are prime, aged and butchered in-house, topped with a little herb-garlic butter, and the beef is unquestionably glorious. The signature entree, however, doesn't even come from a cow; it's a tableside-carved pork chop ($34.95), a slab of meat seven fingers tall, which has been slow smoked and roasted, served with applesauce. You don't specify a temperature on this bad boy, because the smoking and roasting cooks it through; nevertheless, the meat is tender and juicy. (If the chop seems too daunting, swing by at lunch for the smaller, $17.95 lunch cut.)
The Symphony Kabob ($44.95) is a cute presentation, a suspended skewer that holds three hefty shrimp, two hunks of filet mignon and a single lobster tail; on the plate below is a ramekin holding peppercorn sauce for the steak. The bone-in New York strip ($47.95) is presented whole, then sliced off the bone for your convenience. The bone remains on your plate, however, for which my dog seemed most grateful later that evening.
Starters include crab cake, presented in two crunchy balls, along with a pile of potato hay; it's a visual mess that tastes good. Lobster bisque, bolstered by a handful of chopped lobster meat, is a fine choice as well.
I didn't indulge in sweets, but Perry's offers three tableside-prepared desserts, including such throwbacks as bananas foster and cherries jubilee.
Perry's Steakhouse & Grille, 5 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook, 630-571-1808. Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday.
Lakeshore East sure looks like a swanky place to live, tucked just north of Randolph Street in an area old-timers will remember as the old Lake Shore Drive, before the S-curve was straightened out. But it has yet to realize its potential as a dining draw; Maison, a very good bistro in this development, closed this year for lack of business, and III Forks doesn't get nearly as much business as I think it would in a more visible part of town.
The good news is that you can get a reservation on relatively short notice and dig into some seriously good steaks. I visited on a chilly, but not miserable, night, and the restaurant was so quiet that the bartender waited on us, and we weren't sitting at the bar (very good service nonetheless).
The interior is sleek; glass walls offer dramatic views of the surrounding high-rise buildings as well as the pretty park below. Eye-catching design elements include a brightly lit, glassed-in wine room and a comfy, polished-wood bar area. Up a level, there's a very nice rooftop garden; keep it in mind when warm weather returns.
There are seven steaks on the menu, most of them prime, including a prime flat-iron steak, which is an unusual offering. We ordered a pair of classics: a 16-ounce N.Y. strip and an even bigger bone-in rib-eye (both $45.95). The meat is first rate, the steaks are served uncluttered (as I prefer), and the temperatures were spot on. The indulgent side was a six-cheese potato dish, served bubbling hot.
Opening shots include a seafood medley, basically a scaled-down presentation of three appetizers — crab cake, bacon-wrapped scallop, a couple of shrimp — and it's substantial enough to split. Ditto for the ahi tuna, served in thick slices and drizzled with spicy wasabi and black-pepper-hoisin sauces.
III Forks, 180 N. Field Blvd., 312-938-4303. Open dinner Monday-Sunday.