MORTON'S OF CHICAGO
Fairfax Square, 8075 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. 703-883-0800. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. All major credit cards. Limited reservations at lunch and at dinner Friday and Saturday. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $6.95 to $8.50, lunch entrees $3.50 to $18.95; dinner entrees $15.95 to $28.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 to $55 per person.
MORTON'S OF CHICAGO IS like a tough guy in a hand-tailored silk suit. It outfits itself with the biggest and best money can buy, but it's short on finesse.
Let me give you an example: At the entrance to Morton's new Fairfax Square branch are rows of beautifully crafted wine lockers with brass plates identifying their owners. But these rosewood wine lockers have open fronts, covered only with wire mesh -- obviously not cold enough for proper storage. So I asked the man at the desk about that. He answered that when a locker owner makes a reservation, they chill the wine for him. He clearly missed the point.
But Morton's has its own way of doing things. What looks like a menu on the table is actually a list of souvenirs (your lamp can be had for $65) and Morton's 12 branches. At dinner, the actual menu is presented in the raw, with the waiter displaying plastic-wrapped raw beef, lamb and veal (the chicken is cooked). The lobster is alive, and one waitress referred to him as Harold (which meant that we couldn't order lobster, as my guests objected to eating food with which they were on a first-name basis. Thank goodness she hadn't named the steaks.).
The recitation races through seven appetizers, five salads, 14 entrees, four vegetables and four kinds of potatoes, plus three dessert souffles. Needless to say, prices are not mentioned. So it's worth knowing that in addition to two blackboards that list the appetizers and entrees (with prices), you get a printed list if you ask.
This new branch of Morton's is down a barren staircase from the entrance to Fairfax Square, which itself looks monumentally sterile when the upscale shops are closed. Once inside, though, I found it more comfortable than the Georgetown branch. For one thing, Morton's at Fairfax Square takes reservations for weekday evenings and before 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, while the Georgetown branch takes early reservations only. Second, the large room allows plenty of space between the tables. The bar is well separated from the tables, and its lounge is capacious. As in Georgetown, the kitchen is open to the dining room. The lighting is not dim, but it is soft. And the dining room has a pleasant hubbub but is not noisy. This is a room born to luxury, with its wood trim and wine racks fitted into niches of a brick wall. It borrows decorative ideas from here and there -- the wall of patrons' photos is reminiscent of the Palm and Joe and Mo's, and the handsome modern wooden chairs are cousins to those at Adirondacks. It all adds up to a very comfortable, clubby dining room.
Morton's is for big eaters and hard drinkers. The bar pours generously and uses only the best. But the wine list is painfully young as well as pedestrian and generally expensive. While you wait for your "menu" to be carried over, you are presented with a big round loaf of onion-crusted bread, so light and squishy it prompted one guest to wonder whether it was the souffle.
There is nothing fussy or precious about this food. There's not a sun-dried tomato or sliver of goat cheese in the kitchen. Appetizers are oysters on the half shell; shrimp cocktail; crab meat (which isn't at its best this time of year); smoked salmon (luscious quality, expertly sliced); big, juicy bacon-wrapped scallops; herbed and crumbed shrimp Alexander; and black-bean soup that is seasoned generously but not well, and was served lukewarm.
While I admire the smoked salmon and the scallops, I think appetizers are superfluous here. And except for their refreshing crunch, the salads can also be excused from the table. Their dressings are heavy and the highly touted beefsteak tomatoes taste as pallid as they look. I'll skip ahead and suggest that desserts can also be passed up with no regret since the hefty main dishes and vegetables are all anyone could be expected to eat at one sitting.
If my experiences have been typical, the Morton's chain is spreading itself too thin. I've had a great steak here, a boneless sirloin as juicy and meaty-tasting as those I have loved at Georgetown's Morton's in the past. On the other hand, I've had a porterhouse that was its equal in texture and color but had practically no flavor. The roast beef was tender and oozing meat juices one night. Another night there was no roast beef at all. The swordfish on the "menu" was an inch thick and moistly pink. The swordfish on our plate was half the thickness, pale and a little chewy; what was worse, it had so little taste that it would have been hard to identify as fish with your eyes closed. And the parmesan-crumbed veal chop had even less taste under its crumb coating. Yet my greatest disappointment was the lamb chops. Morton's double-thick chops have always tied for first place with the porterhouse in my meat-loving heart. But these chops had too much fat left at the edge and no lamb taste whatever.
Morton's at Fairfax Square is still learning its way. At the Georgetown branch I would securely order my beef cooked black-and-blue (seared and rare), but at the Fairfax Square branch that has turned out to be risky. Twice the black-and-blue meat arrived dark-brown-and-cold. But I'd still take the chance on steak or roast beef at this new Morton's. After all, you need something to accompany the potatoes, the spinach and the asparagus, which are wonderful. The hash browns are like a huge lacy potato pancake with all the crispness of french fries; lyonnaise potatoes combine crusty saute'ed slices with well-browned onions; potato skins are crisp-edged, with just enough potato left on the skins, and served with sour cream, butter and real bacon. And the baked potatoes are perfect simplicity. Among green vegetables, the fat, tender asparagus are so good that the stems are as savory as the tips, and the saute'ed spinach, with or without mushrooms, is richly green and buttery. This meat-eaters' shrine could be a vegetarian's epiphany.
Morton's dining room staff is a brash, energetic bunch who can rattle off three dozen dishes practically without a breath, and lavish attention on every detail from ashtrays to water glasses. The waiters confidently promote the extras with gusto, and the maitre d' asks, sometimes even before you have taken a bite, "Is everything perfect?"
No, everything's not perfect. But in that search for the perfect steak, you sometimes come close here, and along the way you stuff yourself on simply perfect accompaniments.