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No Surprises Here 

MORTON'S OF CHICAGO knows exactly what its customers like: well-cooked steaks with brand-name recognition in a traditional steakhouse setting.

After two meals and several news reports, Morton's of Chicago presents a paradox. It seems that the steakhouse, which I had decided was a straightforward, safe and utterly predictable place, is not exactly as it seemed.

With 56 steakhouses already under its control, a company knows where its target customers congregate. The 57th Morton's steakhouse is thusly tucked into a corner of The Shops at Canal Place, at the epicenter of the downtown visitors' circuit. Why wouldn't shoppers who empty their wallets for exclusive names like Kenneth Cole, Brooks Brothers and Saks do the same for brand-name steaks? Morton's appears to exist for diners who, not in touch with their inner chowhounds, rely on brand-name restaurants. While the dining room never approached full during my visits, the private Boardroom bustled. Waiters pushed through the doors with tray after tray of filets and cheesecake, applause and laser beams from business meetings escaping in their wake. Morton's first stint in New Orleans ended in the 1980s. HQ surely did its homework before bringing this one to town.

While Morton's look is as cautious as its location, it follows an unofficial code of steakhouse design that I find seductive: dark mahogany, plushy booths, faux floral arrangements, black-and-white celebrity photographs, low lighting and a view to cooks putting long blades to heavy hunks of flesh. Frank Sinatra and USDA Prime beef are such pals that I've wondered whether the singer once signed an eternal contract with the American steakhouse guild; his presence at Morton's is such that employees must catch themselves humming "Summer Wind" on their days off. The plump wine list is carefully composed of robust selections and priced to fit a bottomless expense account.

Steakhouses may attract power and intrigue (there are four Morton's in the Washington, D.C., area alone), and the process of procuring quality steaks does require expertise, but there's zero mystery to eating a broiled chunk of beef. For reasons to which I'm not privy, however, servers at Morton's stop only at butchering a steer on site to ensure that you know exactly what you're ordering. The show-and-tell menu performance involves uncooked steaks, raw fish, an alley-cat-size lobster, half a produce stand and a soliloquy itemizing nine appetizers, four salads, 13 entrees, 12 side dishes and seven or so desserts -- great practice for aspiring Shakespearean actors. Diners are granted paper menus for reading between the lines after the show.

But it's the food that truly epitomizes the restaurant's predictability. You'll know how Morton's filet mignon tastes, for example, if you close your eyes and imagine the most satisfying and least offensive filet mignon you've ever eaten. Do the same for its bearnaise sauce. The beef, mostly USDA Prime, is wet-aged so that it's just moist enough, and so that the beefy nuances bloom just enough; not so much, however, that the slightly off, cheesy flavor of seriously dry-aged beef develops. That would be too risky. The beef is also so beautifully marbled that, even ordered medium-well, filet mignon and sirloin burgers alike have more succulent body than a California Cabernet. Sandwiched in a yellow onion bun, a burger the size of a salad plate had no gristly bites; it came with consummate sides of sauteed mushrooms and onions, and skinny, show-stopping fries puffed like overweight shoestring potatoes.

As with the beef, Morton's kitchen treats its high-quality seafood with reserve. Crabcakes made with paper-clip-size lumps of Indonesian blue crab were rich enough for dessert. Jumbo shrimp with pickle relish-cocktail sauce were so meaty I challenge any fish-eating "vegetarian" to justify ingesting them.

Most side dishes and appetizers were as dependable as a dollar bill. Caesar salad hit an academic balance of garlic, lemon, Parmesan, brine and crunch; it tasted more like a Caesar salad than any in my imagination. Sauteed shiitake, crimini and portobello mushrooms sogged a round of toast like biscuits-and-gravy for royalty. A walloping bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes revealed the selfless love affair between butter and potato. And at the moment when warm Godiva fudge leaked from a rounded chocolate cake, no other dessert would have hit the spot so well.

There was a nutmeg uprising in the creamed spinach, cheesecake from New York that tasted throughout like soggy graham cracker crust, and "Oriental Dressing" (as the menu calls it) on a warm steak salad that was as awkward in Morton's old-school environment as Bill Gates would look in a Victoria's Secret store. Otherwise, the meals were flawless. My only real criticism, which is more a comment on the restaurant's nature than a dig, is that I discovered nothing to woo the typical New Orleans palate. Morton's seemed destined to serve visitors not up for surprises.

And then the nightly news interrupted these musings. There had been a scuffle at Morton's between the Copelands and the Guidrys, another climax in a long-standing feud linking prominent New Orleans families that historically offer little reprieve from surprise. Nothing could ruffle Morton's careful treatment of surf and turf, but there might be some local celebrities to add to that photo wall. The jury is still out on the restaurant's predictability.

click to enlarge Chef Michael Hudik follows the MORTON'S OF CHICAGO tradition of using wet-aged USDA Prime beef so that the meat's nuances bloom just enough. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Chef Michael Hudik follows the MORTON'S OF CHICAGO tradition of using wet-aged USDA Prime beef so that the meat's nuances bloom just enough.
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