Open for dinner only, Monday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Prices: Appetizers about $5 to $7.50; main courses about $11 to $20. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $40 to $50 a person.
At last, 1963 is here. Morton's of Chicago has turned the
clock back in Georgetown to those two-inch-thick steak
days when real men hadn't even heard of quiche. The
white-wine crowd and the very notion of recession are
merely myths if you can believe your eyes at Morton's.
The drinks are big, the steaks are thick, the mean are wearing vests stretched over their affluece fed middles and young blondes on their arms. The reservation list is full of Dr./Mr./Sen. accompanied by So-and-So.
The steaks are better at The Palm, the potato skins are crisper at The Prime Rib, and Joe and Mo's has had a longstanding clear field in the roast beef contest. The only thing tops at Morton's is its prices (though Morton's will protest that its Palm-size prices are for larger steaks than The Palm's). Even so, Morton's is playing to a packed house.
You've got to admit, it's a good show.
Don't bother squinting to read the blackboard menu unless you care about prices, because waiters and waitresses come by your table with the menu in the flesh--the raw New York strip and porterhouse steaks wrapped in plastic, which they fondle as they describe the meat's aging process; the live lobster crawling across its tray, which they stroke to calm as they describe its broiling process; the raw chicken marinating under plastic wrap, which--thank goodness--they allow to rest in peace. They show you your gargantuan Idaho potato, onion for your tomato salad and your tomato (but the "beefsteak tomatoes" on the menu are a mile short of being beefsteaks). They even boast that the bacon for the spinach salad and for topping the potatoes is "homemade."
The appetizers are raw oysters ($4.75), which the waiter accurately described as "small"; crab cocktail ($7), shrimp cocktail ($6) and smoked salmon ($7.50). For main courses you can have steaks--sirloin, porterhouse or filet (up to $19.95)-- prime rib ($15.95), veal chop ($15.95), chicken ($10.75), grilled fish (which the waiter did not recommend) or lobster ($11 a pound). Those prices include no salad, potato or other vegetable, which would add at least $2 to your bill or, in the case of asparagus, $3.95 for five spears.
Clearly, price has been no object for the Morton's people and is not expected to be for you. The room is luxuriously plain, with textured white walls and a gallery of paintings--for sale. The white tablecloths are set with he-man salt and pepper shakers and steak knives big enough for the beefiest hands (and for sale at the coat-check counter). Plates are heavy and plain white, glasses are big and chunky. The dining room is as casual as designer jeans. Waiters and waitresses wear black bow ties and long white steakhouse aprons, and act as if working at Morton's is the most fun they have ever had in their young lives. That could be said of many diners, too, and the place tends to burst into noisy revelry. This is clearly a place to let your hair down after a hard day of making money.
The oysters and crab meat arrive on huge plastic bowls of ice, with forks, lemon and sauce cups. Beyond show, however, the crab meat was big, snowy lumps but a bit dried out; the oysters were indeed small and not special; thus the shrimp, slightly overcooked but big and flavorful, were the best of the appetizers. One day the smoked salmon was dried out and pale as if it had freezer burn; another day it was quite respectable if more salty than flavorful. The best part of the appetizers is the horseradish sauce for the seafoods; the red sauce, though, is far too sweet.
With the dining room full, service has been slow. One night, between having a drink and waiting for the menu, eating appetizers and surveying the Morton's community, two hours passed before our main courses came. Then only one steak arrived. As we waited for the other main dishes, a waitress came to whisk it away, exclaiming, "It was a mistake." Actually, the steak that eventually came was the mistake, not nearly as rare as the first one. These are beautiful steaks: perfectly trimmed and thick enough to allow rareness with crustiness. But despite their highly touted aging, they have little flavor. The porterhouse came off better than the New York strip; it had more meaty taste, although both were cooked less rare than we requested. (At another visit the steak was cooked perfectly, though by then I had been identified as a restaurant critic.) The thick bone-on prime rib looked impressive and was cooked just right but also had little beefy taste. The best of our dishes was not beef at all, but the thick veal chop seasoned with garlic and saut,eed in parmesan and bread crumbs, and the chicken, tangy with lemon and oregano, just a bit overcooked but crusty and flavorful. As for the side dishes, the big, fluffy baked potato--accompanied by butter, sour cream and crumbled bacon--was the hit, with that expensive, al dente asparagus a close second, though its tough lower stalks should have been trimmed. Hash browns are odd here, so crusty that the surface tasted like Chinese sizzling rice, and quite fluffy inside; I loved them, though they were not what one expects from hash browns. The potato skins, on the other hand, were thick and dull, lacking crustiness. And spinach with mushrooms was a grassy but largely tasteless dish.
The house salad is an astonishingly bland m,elange of iceberg lettuce, romaine and fainthearted blue cheese dressing with a few anchovies being the only sparkle. Spinach salad needed more trimming and less sweetness, though the combination with avocado, scallions and bacon was nice. The tomato salad would be all right if you weren't led to expect beefsteaks.
The wine list is as young as you would expect from a new restaurant, and a greater and more interesting choice than you would expect from a steakhouse. France and California have been well combed for this list. But prices are stratospheric; among the champagnes, for example, Domaine Chandon is $28, Schramsburg $35 and Dom Perignon $110. Expect to start at $18 for a '77 Simi Cabernet or a '78 Chateau Lescours.
Morton's has two happy endings: a very good cheesecake and a choice of regular or decaffeinated among its brewed coffees. Souffl,es are popular here, though I can't think why, except that they look handsome. The lemon souffl,e tasted like just egg white and a touch of lemon peel with its bitter pith remaining, and the chocolate was as pale in taste as in color.
Morton's has clearly hit the right buttons, though, to pack its tables at a time considered bad for restaurants. Maybe it has gathered Georgetown's original Clyde's crowd, graduated from hamburgers to steaks.