Traditionally, the classic American steak house has been the restaurant of American individualism, or perhaps selfishness. You may share that shrimp cocktail appetizer, or the side of creamed spinach, with your boys in flannel suits, but when it comes down to the main attraction, what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours. Keep your paws off my T-bone, dog, or I’ll go for your throat.
That said, there’s been a movement afoot to reinvent the steak house, from the ridiculous “female-friendly” STK Chicago to more modestly sized European-style efforts like Bavette’s and Boeufhaus.
It’s amazing no one had thought of wedging a steak house into the shared-plates concept that’s dominated the restaurant scene for so many years. Leave it to Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & the Goat, Momotaro, Perennial Virant) to come through with that angle.
Wait a minute. Didn’t Boka’s Rob Katz and Kevin Boehm, along with chef Chris Pandel, just deliver Swift & Sons, the swanky steak house on the ground floor of Google’s West Loop headquarters? What more can they possibly accomplish with this format?
It starts with the name, GT Prime, the initials standing for Giuseppe Tentori, the longtime Boka Group chef and Trotter’s vet who opened the estimable GT Fish & Oyster in 2011. In some ways this River North steak house—in the midst of the city’s steak-house district—is built on GT Fish’s shared-plates model, right down to the beef.
Unlike GT Fish, however, it’s dark and clubby like a typical steak house, but with some diverting features: a crowded bar filled with high-tops leads to a dining room with rough, black wood walls that dampen the light and give the appearance of having endured a forest fire. These are offset by giant illuminated photorealistic still lifes (ham-grapes-crab; cabbage-disembodied heart-octopus) and a saucerlike chandelier that might be harboring extraterrestrials. At the end of the hall, on top of a gleaming copper staircase leading to the restrooms, there’s a portrait of Tentori glaring out from under the hood of a black robe like some sort of satanic priest, just as he glowers over the pass in the flesh before the busy kitchen below.
There’s no dino-size 46-ounce porterhouse coming out of that kitchen, but there are half a dozen meats available in four- and eight-ounce portions that arrive on cast-iron serviceware, presliced in manageable slabs so that your tablemates don’t have to set on them like a pack of jackals. Rib eye, skirt steak, beef tenderloin, bison tenderloin, lamb loin, and venison loin make up the choices, though there’s also “the Carnivore,” a meat platter featuring four-ounce portions of beef fillet, rib eye, venison, and Wagyu, recommended to feed four to six. There’s little to say about these fine pieces of flesh. But if you’re among the minimum four carnivores and have even a semiserious meat tooth, you’ll be clamoring for a hot dog or a pork chop sandwich on the way home.
As I indicated, though, the object at GT Prime isn’t to quench your bloodlust and send you home to Bailey with a doggie bag. The fact is, beyond these dainty steaks, GT Prime offers a menu of intriguing possibilities that barely reference steak-house standards. It’s a new opportunity to explore Tentori’s always interesting food.
One nod at the classics is a kale Caesar: surprisingly tender, finely shredded greens enrobed in sharp dressing, surrounded by a moat of fluffy grated Parmesan and topped with a precisely arranged grid of tomatoes, croutons, and anchovy fillets. The salad has an architecture that I’d describe as Trotterlike, though Charlie would never have dreamed of letting you reach over and scoop a spoonful onto your plate. That influence is also echoed in another reimagined standard, a dome of sweet blue crabmeat covered by a sheath of thinly shaved avocado dotted with gobs of mango and red-pepper puree. Same goes for a quartet of arancini filled with smooth mortadella mousse, carefully draped with julienned golden beet and stabilized on a base of stiff mozzarella “sauce.” Ligurian-style potato gnocchi would’ve made more sense than the more delicate Parisian style, sauced with a brilliant green and highly emulsified pesto arranged with green beans, radish slices, and crunchy sweetbreads serving as “croutons,” but it’s an appealing dish nonetheless. (Interestingly, all three pasta dishes on the menu contain some sort of offal).
There are more conventionally plated dishes that are just as enjoyable. Lemony, creamy grits are tasty enough to make you push aside the otherwise delicious veal cheek they support. Nutty roasted cauliflower is adorned with a jumble of pine nuts, sweet fried peppers, tomato, and whipped ricotta. And a skillet of tangy, cheesy corn playing second act to blistered shishitos livens up what’s become one of the most overplayed vegetables in town. Paired with crispy, fatty suckling pig belly, sweet pureed red cabbage and roasted squash make a plate that’s the picture of autumn.
A few dishes require some tinkering. If you prefer your steak raw, be warned the generous serving of tartare is amalgamated with too much yolk, and the chips it’s served with are too delicate to support its mucilaginous mass. The honeycomb stuck in your teeth will remind you for hours of the overly sticky-sweet maitake mushrooms served with melted Brie. But maybe the biggest letdown at GT Prime was a whole roasted branzino—which sells itself via a lovely photograph on the restaurant’s website—that comes to the table as two meagerly sized fillets, with nothing edible to absorb its tantalizing juices.
Desserts by pastry chef Andrea Bonitatibus are consistently beautiful and compelling, particularly a dense, chocolaty s’more cake topped with thick marshmallow ice cream and supported by a graham cookie base. The chocolate marquise is a carefully composed cake/pudding conjuration with strong banana notes and delicious sesame brittle. And a busy Meyer lemon creme brulee, which itself betrayed no hint of citrus, is topped with piles of marmalade and a quenelle of intense lemon gelato.
The affront of a $21 manhattan at the top of the cocktail list is softened by a number of more sensibly priced mixtures such as the smoky X-Ray Yankee Zulu—with marrow-infused bourbon, a charcoal-infused bitter aperitif, and a slab of candied bacon (not as childish as it sounds)—or, say, a negroni as conventional as the former drink is aberrant. Wines by the glass are helpfully offered in three- and six-ounce pours in case you aren’t sure about that fruity and metallic Austrian zweigelt, or the Cabernet Franc priced at $128.
You’ve probably noticed I’ve spent far more time on everything but the steaks. That’s because GT Prime is a steak house in name only. What we have here is another winning Giuseppe Tentori restaurant, this one with a side of beef. v