Currently on Twitter, there are seven accounts for RPM Steak, the carnecentric analogue to nearby RPM Italian. Among them are @RPMSteakChicago, @RPMSteakDC, @RPMSteakVegas, @RPMSteakNYC, and @RPMSteakLA. No one has tweeted from any of these accounts yet, and on a couple of them there’s even a forceful ALL CAPPED command to go follow the official @RPMSteakChi. Move along now. Nothing to see here.
But if Lettuce Entertain You is in fact scheming to build a national RPMpire (under the reign of the Melman children and of River North homecoming king and queen Bill and Giuliana Rancic), they’re making damn sure no one’s going to squat on their Twitter handles. Interestingly, no one’s claimed @RPMCroatia—so I guess we can’t look forward to Mama Rancic’s hladetina anytime soon. In addition to there being no apparent family recipes on the menu, RPM Steak has several things in common with RPM Italian and other Melman Jr. properties, beginning with the warning posted outside the door that you might end up humiliating yourself on video, in photographs, or on the E! network’s Giuliana & Bill. There’s also the same awful electronic aural anesthesia pumping through the sound system, which must be at least partly responsible for transforming River North into a Walking Dead set every night around 2 AM.
But it also has Paul McGee, who predictably has put together a terrific list of very well-made cocktails—try the Tuxedo, a lovely, smooth, subtle potion of gin, dry vermouth, and absinthe—and some remarkably rare (and expensive) whiskeys. And of course it has chef Doug “the P in RPM” Psaltis, whose menu at RPM Italian was what set it apart as the best—perhaps until now—among the Junior Melmans’ collective restaurants.
Like most Chicago steak houses, RPM Steak is about much more than beef. There’s the de rigueur raw bar, the familiar appetizers (bacon, foie gras) and sides (sauteed spinach, Hasselback potatoes), and the large selection of seafood and other nonbovine entrees for those who refuse to get with the program. But RPM Steak is, as its principals have asserted, doing things quite differently than the typical Chicago expense-account feeding lot.
Let’s look at some of those familiar starters. A pair of small “coal roasted” king crab legs—a couple of joints really—is served in a giant bowl filled with what looks like road salt. You might feel crestfallen at the portion, especially given its $18 price tag (couldn’t they throw a couple more knuckles on that hill of salt?). But the intersection of the smoky char on the tender flesh and the sweet, almost buttery miso glaze is enough to make you start rationalizing another order.
Long roasted marrow bones—by now a pretty tired cliche—are revived with smoked paprika and curry spices. The wedge salad is atypical: very lightly and sharply dressed with something closer to vinaigrette in flavor than the usual molten gobs of blue cheese dressing. Similarly, the Caesar is nearly minimal; the only hint at a break in form is the anchovies curled and nested in the yolk of a deviled egg. A half loaf of ciabatta is planted in a lake of thick Taleggio fondue and sprinkled with fried rosemary needles. Mini latkes arrive in a bowl—crispy finger food meant for dipping in applesauce. These were recently 86’d from the menu—I’d guess because they were too dry. But among the five other spud options, the “millionaire’s potato,” a large double-baked russet topped with gooey fontina and coins of aromatic black truffle, is really the prize.
On a menu of this scope there are bound to be a few duds—oversalted brussels sprouts, bland curried cauliflower, and perhaps the biggest letdown: whole Dover sole, deboned in the kitchen and brought to the table showered in rye croutons and a weird sickly sweet sauce that obliterates the flavor of the delicate fish.
Among the nonbeef options, which include mac and cheese with aged Gruyere and Berkshire pork shank, there’s a wonderful broiled black cod fillet, simply adorned with soy and sesame and portioned for a normal appetite. That restraint is emblematic of much of the menu at RPM Steak, which overall isn’t attempting to kill its patrons with food. On the other hand, the prices are commensurate with its less moderate competitors—which is to say it is quite expensive.
As for the steaks, you can top out at $155 for a 42-ounce Wagyu tomahawk, or you can drop $125 on a 60-day prime dry-aged rib eye, its rosy, mineral-rich slices fanned around the plate like a great meaty rose. But the appealing thing about RPM Steak’s beef offerings is their variety. Its signature prime rib-eye cap, buttery and crusty, comes in at $45, while a 20-ounce grass-fed rib eye is $55. The best values on the menu can be found under the heading “butcher’s cuts,” where a hanger steak, a skirt, and a revelatory short-rib steak—cleaved from the bone in neat rectangles—can satisfy the bloodiest of meat tooths for just around $30.
Things become relatively ostentatious at dessert, where a flaming baked Alaska can be upstaged by a brick of chocolate cake flecked with gold leaf, a gaudiness really only matched by the clientele. This being an LEYE restaurant in the aorta of River North, RPM Steak’s biggest problem is its own instant popularity. Good luck getting a short-notice reservation on any night before 9 PM—and even then you’ll probably wait. Designed with animal watching in mind, a raised bar overlooking a wide dining room gives perfectly unobstructed views of white-jacketed staffers serving Bud Lights to bros in baseball caps. For better and worse, it’s difficult to imagine this singular steak house duplicated anywhere other than River North.