Yesterday, Peter and I went to our local Morton’s restaurant to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. One unadvertised fact about the chain is that they give you a lot of little unexpected perks when you go there for a special occasion (we used to just go there, so we only discovered this on our 18th wedding anniversary). You get a menu printed up just for you, as well as a picture to commemorate the occasion. This year, they also gave us a free souffle, which may only happen for say, the big anniversaries or birthdays, but is nice.
Our server told us the chain had recently been acquired by Landry’s, so we might see some changes, the first of which was that we would not be seeing the cart of meat and demo lobster. That was ok with me, since I always feel kind of sorry for the demo lobster, and we’ve heard the spiel about the wet-aged prime cuts of beef at least a dozen times already. But in retrospect, it may be gone, not for humanitarian/modernization reasons, but because the menu is changing due to the acquisition.
First of all, I should explain why Peter loves Morton’s. He discovered the restaurant about 15 years ago when we were exhibitors at a comic show near Chicago. He was entranced. The place we know and he loves is all about high-grade expensive meat with a old-school Chicago attitude. The servers made a big deal about all their cuts of beef which came in cuts ranging from big (6 oz fillet mignon) to gargantuan (48 oz. porterloin.) Or you could have a huge 2 or 3 pound lobster, slaughtered on site. That was the demo, after which you got a menu showcasing those options, and a few other things, which were clearly secondary options. I’ve ordered the sides, which, were, to put it politely, unimaginative: they ranged from half a head of steamed broccoli, complete and uncut; a 1/4 “wedge” chunk of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing glopped on top; to 3 fat stalks of asparagus with Hollandaise sauce. For your buddy who had a heart attack last week and is thus still taking his doctor’s advice to limit his red meat consumption, there were always one or two alternatives on the printed menu of chicken or fish. It was not (and still isn’t) a place for the vegetarian, the vegan, or the health-conscious, just as a gun range isn’t a place for gun control advocates or as hard liquor is not for children. And Peter loves it that way. When he goes out for fine dining, his ideal entree is prime beef. And for him, just as the old Morton’s signaled in its presentation and menu, everything else is incidental. Peter doesn’t care for the soup or salad — they just get in the way of the beef. And the desert is only there as the proverbial frosting on the cake, but do you really need a piece of chocolate molten cake after you’re finished off a 22 ounce rib-eye?
At first Peter thought his first Morton’s experience was unique to Chicago, so he was delighted to find out it was a chain, with a consistent menu and attitude, and restaurants in San Diego (conveniently next door to the convention center, where we go to Comic Con each year) and San Francisco. We used to drive an hour to the San Francisco Morton’s, until they opened one is San Jose 5 or 6 years ago. Personally, I’m not as much into beef as Peter is, but I will enjoy it. And, as I mentioned before, I’ve ordered the secondary options, and the fish and chicken were also typically high-quality and well presented.
So as we reviewed our menus without having seen the demo lobster, I was pleased to see I had more than a few alternatives to choose from. The iceberg chunk is still there, but there are 4 or 5 more salads to choose from, some of which are actually chopped. There was a lot more seafood to choose from, which included two ocean platters, sea bass, crab legs, and shrimp. I got a salmon fillet, which was cooked just right; ironically I enjoyed the vegetable relish it came on even more than the salmon. And please don’t get the impression Morton’s has suddenly gone health-conscious. Those salads are still dripping with blue cheese and bacon, and that vegetable relish was soaking in butter, which may have been the reason it tasted so good.
But Peter felt something had gone missing from his classic Morton’s experience. The server seemed to be pushing us to order appetizers and sides, when honestly, just one of those cuts of beef is enough to feed a family for a day. And then there was the butter “upgrades.” For $4, Peter could get a flavored butter on his steak: truffle butter, blue cheese butter, etc. Does a prime steak really need a whole lot more flavoring? And if the steak needed butter, wouldn’t the chef just add it himself, at his own discretion? And c’mon — when a guy’s paying $57 for straight-up beef, you gotta charge him another 4 bucks for a pat of flavored butter? Is the profit margin really that slim?
While Peter’s steak was cooked just right, it was a lot closer to the choice steak he’d grilled for himself the night before than the juicy, marbled and aged steak he expected. Is Morton’s meat supplier shorting them? Is the Landry’s meat supplier not as good as the Morton’s one? Are the steaks still wet-aged? Come to think of that, there was no mention of aging on the menu, and we had simply assumed it after decades of Morton’s meat demonstrations. I’d like to think they haven’t switched to choice steak, but only the chef knows, and the “buy some butter” spiel may have just set us off the wrong way.
In any case, I enjoy some novelty, and I’ve gotten Peter to try a few other steakhouses, none of which he’s liked as well as Morton’s. We went to Ruth Chris in San Francisco, which had hot plates that kept the meat cooking itself into a dry char; Blake’s Steakhouse, which is now gone; The Grill on the Alley, which had great service but a dark ambiance; and many more. The next time Peter has the wish for some great restaurant steak, we may go to the highly-regarded Asian steakhouse in Cupertino. I don’t know how Peter will feel if the Japanese steakhouse turns out to be better than the Chicago one.
I also wonder how much Morton’s will keep its unique appeal if it transforms into another general fine-dining brand. After all, if I want some yummy salmon and a delicious salad, there are many other restaurants which will offer it to me just as well (sorry, Morton’s). But all Peter wants is a great steak without distractions; it’s not clear if the Morton’s-in-revision will still be about that. But with that said, the night we were there, Morton’s was hopping, with almost every table taken, as well as with a party going on in the back. So Peter’s ideal steakhouse may also be an old-fashioned idea that’s fading away.