Last September, chef John Tesar threw a short, Trump-toned Twitter tantrum about Chicago chef Timothy Cottini. The restaurateur, former Top Chef contestant, and “most hated chef in Dallas” (according to a D Magazine story) accused Cottini of attempting to rip off the name, logo, and concept of Tesar’s steak house, Knife. In pretending that there’s anything original to be stolen from any steak-house “concept,” Tesar succeeded only in boosting the profile of Cottini’s modest new North Center meat market—also named Knife to correspond with Fork, his first spot up the street in Lincoln Square.
In these times of steak-house fatigue, Cottini might’ve caused a bigger stir by jumping ahead to the next logical concept: a 24-hour soup kitchen called Spoon. It’s easy to talk a good game about reinventing the steak house, but the only thing you can really do that will surprise anyone is to situate yourself in an underserved area. Neighborhood folk crave a slab of bloody just as often as visiting conventioneers, but it doesn’t mean they want to rub elbows with them.
And so another north-side neighborhood steak house is born, situated among the tattoo removal clinics and shoe boutiques of Lincoln Avenue in the snug space that once housed Chalkboard. It’s a small environment for grand ambitions: a $95 rib eye for two, enveloping red leather booths, and a predilection for tableside preparation—there’s a tableside Caesar, tableside cocktail service, and desserts set aflame at the table.
Knife’s enterprise in modest surroundings makes minor, if elemental, service issues stand out all the more. On two occasions my party stood awkwardly at the abandoned host stand, peering through a thick meat haze, waiting for someone to notice us. That on one of these evenings the door was thrown open to the night for aeration foreshadowed a laundry load infused with the smell of hot aerosolized beef fat. For now at least, servers occasionally seem unavailable, whether the restaurant is busy or not. It’s a serious liability for a place to be pushing a performative style of service with performers who aren’t all up to speed.
That 28-ounce, 28-day dry-aged rib eye for me was a disaster. Hacked both with and against the grain by nervous, uncertain hands, it was a $94 pile of steaming sadness, not given enough time to rest, and in large spots overcooked to medium and even medium well. The sides that accompany this mountain of bad butchery, however, are enjoyable, and they demonstrate Knife’s potential—provided that service keeps pace—to evolve into something more than textbook. A scoop of broccoli almondine rests in a mildly sweet almond tuile that provides a disarming garnish to the plate, while the twice-baked potatoes, perched upright like starch barrels, wrapped in crispy bacon and topped with creme fraiche, make up for some of the disappointing knife work.
In fact, the attendant appetizers, sides, and salads consistently show up the meatier part of the menu. Macaroni gratin, a sort of composed mac and cheese, is shellacked with melted Jarlsberg and Parmesan to form a cohesive, scarfable funk, while smoked frites take on a noticeable but not overwhelming kiss of the fire. Onion strings are frazzly and light, and even strong-willed diners will have trouble resisting the urge to shovel them down by the fistful.
Beyond the fried-dough exterior of the oxtail doughnuts is a scant but potent core of molten beef. Cottini’s idea of shrimp de jonghe is a trio of sweet crustaceans mounted on puff pastry and smothered tableside in hot drawn butter. It’s not an unappealing presentation, but one that requires the house-made Parker House rolls or focaccia for cleanup.
Salads are a surprising delight. A grilled wedge that looks like it crashed into a wall is tossed with a hunk of blue cheese, strips of bacon, and rubbery but likable lobster mitts, all doused in green goddess. The tableside Caesar, depending on who wheels it over, is an exemplar of the form: the server builds the dressing in the spinning bowl before adding each component with precise deliberation and dishing it out with texturally appropriate portioning.
Other entrees fare more or less well. Congealed cheese topping the roasted fennel betrayed the amount of time a lamb porterhouse spent on the pass. Ahi tuna with lobster demi-glace is as pink and thin and enjoyable as cold fish can be in a steak house. And a basic boneless 12-ounce rib eye was executed so perfectly medium rare that one could briefly forget, if not forgive, the debacle with the dino-size rib eye on the previous visit.
Cottini offers some of the bells and whistles a larger steak house might make available to accompany the beef: bearnaise, Barolo, hollandaise, and au poivre sauces, as well as additions such as lobster tail, foie gras, and blue cheese.
The desserts are familiar: key lime pie, chocolate layer cake, profiteroles, and a gran torino featuring a layer of sponge cake and spumoni ice cream torched at the table.
For such a small operation, the wine list, covering a number of price ranges, is relatively long. And while the tableside cocktail service is performed rather anticlimactically—four classics made by servers using droppers to fill tinkling rocks glasses—bar manager Tony Munger’s list of obscurely titled cocktails invites some examination. Taken mostly from the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a catalog of invented words, the names conjure a sense of melancholy that may have you weeping into your Ellipism, a flute of spherified cognac bubbles suspended in sparkling wine and orange liqueur, which references the feeling of “sadness that you’ll never know how history will turn out.” The Enoument—Journeyman rye whiskey and dry white wine with seasonal fruits and herbs, served in the circular Crucial Detail Porthole vessel popularized by the Aviary—evokes “the bitterness of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.” Onism, the frustration of being stuck in just one place at a time, is dubiously illustrated by Michter’s rye, nocino, orange curacao, and bitters.
Knife seems like its identity isn’t struggling so much to emerge from under the finger-wagging ego of a distant celebrity chef as from the complications of understaffing and undertraining. But there is potential. Give it time. v