We Have A New Favorite Steakhouse
By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 29, 2016 3:38PM
The interior of the dining room at GT Prime. Photo by Sarah Freeman.
It's no secret that I've been kind of lukewarm about a lot of the participants in the recent steakhouse boom that's swept Chicago. Swift and Sons? Pricy and had some issues. STK? More focused on sexy than steak. But friends, my faith in our lord beef has been restored by a certain new River North steakhouse.
GT Prime is the sort of epic restaurant that has come to represent the Boka restaurant group. It's huge, has an incredibly detailed design, and feels like the sort of place where a discretely dressed man would walk in, pull out a small controller, push a button and descend to his villain's lair far beneath the dining room.
It's mostly black, incredibly sexy and totally cavernous. There are taxidermy antelopes with feathers. There are fur-covered bar seats. There are giant still life portraits of food on the walls. There's an open flame grill smoldering right next to the bar. There's a somewhat ridiculous portrait of the chef, Giuseppe Tentori, outside the restrooms. In front of me, a vested bartender frantically chips at a giant block of ice with a pick.
The bar (plus fire) at GT Prime. Photo by Sarah Freeman.
In the hands of a less talented restaurant group (especially where design is concerned) this place would be a mess. Somehow, thought, it turns out to be a charming spot that captures the luxury feel of "steakhouse" without the over-the-top masculine ridiculousness that says "expensive steakhouse for white corporate men who like leather and cigars." You could bring a client or a date or a group of friends and feel equally at home.
Tentori was known for his slightly precious but incredibly delicious food during his time at Boka, and has made a name for GT Fish & Oyster by doing upscale oyster shack classics. I've always thought his flair is for taking an existing genre of restaurant and kicking the whole thing up a notch, but without losing comfort and approachability. That's exactly what's happening at GT Prime.
The focus here is still on the steaks, but rather than a menu filled with the standard beefsteak tomato-ceasar salad-steak tartare-baked potato steakhouse appetizer dance, the menu is filled with sides, hot and cold, that are delicious, innovative and often unexpectedly light. Take a fresh, spicy tuna crudo, with a touch of citrus, a bit of heat from fresno peppers and a vegetal kick from cilantro. Innovative? Not particularly, but it's the best example of that particular dish I'd had in a while, and not expected at a "steakhouse."
Tuna crudo. Photo by Sarah Freeman.
Or take the veal, which, thank goodness, was recommended by our server because i'd never generally order more beef at a steak restaurant. It was a perfectly tender veal cheek, served with grits with a strong hit of lemon that balanced the richness of the meat. This may be my new winter standby.
OK, OK, so what about the steaks? This is the real genius of GT Prime, and it's so simple everyone should have thought of this before. Rather than serving giant hunks of beef that, in my experience, most people don't want to eat and no one wants to pay $100 for, all the meat at GT Prime is served sliced in small portions. There are six cuts to choose from (not all of which are beef) and a four ounce portion runs between $14 and $28. I specifically ordered the cheapest cut, the skirt steak, and for $14, I got enough perfectly rare, flavorful meat to be satisfied with my evening. Show me another fancy steakhouse in Chicago that can pull that off. GT Prime also bucks the trend of trying to up-sell the customer on fancy toppings for the steaks—no crab or foie necessary here—instead serving the meat with a selection of different seasoning salts.
Venison. At GT Prime, meats come with flags. Photo by Sarah Freeman.
Though I was satisfied, I couldn't stop with skirt steak. Venison, which is sadly absent from most steak menus, was equally perfect, served dead rare and filled with the gamey flavor that most grain-fed filet mignons sadly lack. If you insist on going fancy, there's some imperial wagyu on a special section of the menu, but it's almost superfluous. GT Prime reminds us that meat doesn't need to be expensive, massaged or pampered to be great—just treated right by a talented kitchen.
During my time at GT Prime, I had a lot more of this menu, and literally nothing was a miss. Roasted mushrooms with brie were rich, chewy and tasted like the bottom of a forest; some of the last shishito peppers of the year were perfectly seared with roasted corn, lime and parmesan for an asian twist on elote. I literally could have eaten a pint of their chicken liver mousse.
Here's the real kicker: their service was over the top good. In an era when practically every food writer in town has said that the most disappointing part of dining out is service, whoever is training the staff at GT Prime is getting it right. And not just in terms of solicitous preening, but actual insight about the menu. My date failed to disclose a dietary preference, and they figured it out, empathized with actual knowledge about the ailment, and re-plated a dish for her. It was suggested that we have the mushrooms (which, because of the brie are decadent to the extreme) as a mid-course between steak and dessert, so as not to ruin the meat. Wine recommendations were spot on. Plus, my very favorite thing at a restaurant: the server warned us against over-ordering and reeled us in, rather than encouraging us to gorge ourselves to increase his check average.
As a cocktail geek, I have to point out that their martinis were slushy, most of their drinks were either too weak or too sweet for my taste, and I'm not entirely fond of the idea of immersing an entire stick of bacon in a drink, but these are relatively minor concerns. I haven't yet been wowed by mixer Danielle Lewis's work at the Boka joints, but she's doing some innovative stuff like bone marrow infused bourbon mixed with charcoal infused capeletti, so I'd suggest watching this space.
Clearly, I had a great time at GT Prime. But I've had a great time at a lot of expensive restaurants over the years, and usually left clutching my wallet in pain. Despite its over-the-top luxury interior and menu of prime meats, GT Prime somehow left me with the smallest steakhouse-related tab I've gotten in three years. That's an accomplishment in itself. Combined with the food and service quality? It's downright astonishing.
GT Prime is located at 707 N. Wells St.