9:14 AM CDT, October 5, 2011
I'm old enough to remember the day the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, and to remember that it was not a universally praised draft choice. The belief among some was that the Bulls already had guards; why did they need another?
In the same way, the arrival of Michael Jordan's in the InterContinental Chicago had a few people questioning the redundancy, wondering if Chicago would support yet another steakhouse. To which I will answer: No matter how many steakhouses a city might have, there will always be room for a great one.
And Michael Jordan's is going to be a great one.
Ignore, for a moment, the absolute love affair this city still has with the restaurant's namesake. When the restaurant had its grand opening party two weeks ago (the actual opening was late August), Michigan Avenue's east sidewalk was impassable, crammed with fans gathering, not for a hunk of filet, but for a glimpse of the legendary MJ.
"It was hilarious," said executive chef James O'Donnell. "Michael is still Michael. People still love him, as well they should."
Michael's supernova star power will bring the customers in, no doubt. But it will be O'Donnell who'll bring them back.
Generally, top steakhouses take top-quality meat, bring it to the correct temperature and otherwise leave it alone. But O'Donnell is one of those rarities, a steakhouse chef who cooks.
For instance, the signature steak is the MJ prime Delmonico, a boneless rib eye that's dry-aged for 45 days (other steaks get a 28-day age, but 45 just happens to be the number Jordan wore as a baseball player). It's a marvelous piece of meat, but O'Donnell takes it a step better by saucing it with a ginger and balsamic-vinegar jus. The sharp vinegar and ginger flavors cut through the meat, but I'm less impressed with the sauce, which works perfectly, than I am with the boldness of using it.
The lamb chops also get the gourmet treatment, the rib chops marinated in white harissa and topped with a merguez-sausage crust. Alaskan halibut is predictably terrific, this being peak halibut season, but the smoked-pecan romesco sauce beneath elevates the dish even more. Even the roast chicken, a sop to unadventurous diners at many restaurants, is enhanced with a smoked-chicken jus and a root-vegetable medley.
"We strive to make the best of every item," O'Donnell says. "If we do lamb, it's going to be a great lamb dish. We're not going to do some vanilla dish to appease the masses."
Among the impressive starters are a crab cake of pure colossal crab meat, dressed with a Meyer-lemon aioli (it might be the best crab cake in town), a terrific salumi platter of La Quercia meats and a stack of toasted ciabatta garlic bread, over which a waiter drizzles blue-cheese fondue (this artery-buster ought to require a doctor's note).
Side dishes dazzle. The eye-catching side is the mashed-potato trio, three cast-iron pots with lobster, garlic and cheddar-horseradish potatoes (the lineup varies). Even better, in my view, is the shrimp and grits, a terrific version enriched with Nueske's bacon, sweet corn and lobster broth. I will miss the corn niblets, jazzed up with smoked-chile butter and cotija cheese, as the season is all but over, but the roasted mushrooms, flavored with fermented garlic and white-soy mushroom jus, should last all year.
The signature dessert is a 23-layer chocolate cake, perfect for chocoholics (for fun, watch other patrons counting the layers; they can't resist), though pastry chef Hillary Rikower (also pastry chef for sibling property one sixtyblue) also does a sensational Key lime bombe, a cross between baked Alaska and Key lime pie.
Steakhouses are noted for superior service — aficionados of prime beef are a demanding bunch — but Michael Jordan's relentlessly friendly and attentive staff is exceptional even by steakhouse standards.
Michael Jordan's occupies the hotel's second floor, which has been cleverly redesigned to maximize its odd, horseshoe space, including a futuristic bridge spanning the open space over the hotel lobby. The white-tablecloth space is roomy, comfortable and mostly quiet.
One dining-room wall is inscribed with this Jordan quote: "I was aware of my success, but I just never stopped trying to get better." It's a sentiment the staff seems to have taken to heart.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-CH. 9's "News at Nine" and onCLTV.
Michael Jordan's Steak House
505 N. Michigan Ave., 312-321-8823
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner and lunch Monday-Sunday
Entree prices: $25-$48
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Ratings key: 4 stars -- Outstanding; 3 stars -- Excellent; 2 stars -- Very good; 1 star -- Good; No stars: Unsatisfactory. Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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