It has been almost a year and a half since I wrote a full report on Michael Jordan’s Steak House in Chicago. You can read those witty words and admire the fine food fotography by clicking here. A recent return visit gave me an excuse to do a brief update and mention a couple of relatively new dishes.
It was a beautiful spring day in Chicago, but Valeria was attending a Russian cultural event so I was left to enjoy it on my own. A short but very pleasant walk took me to the Intercontinental Hotel where Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse is located. Along the way I snapped a picture of tulips blooming.
Is there anything more cheerful and beautiful that spring flowers blooming in the first warm days of spring? This is just an iPhone snapshot, as are all the pictures in this post. I didn’t take a camera to the restaurant with me as I didn’t go with the idea of a blog post in mind. Then again, the iPhone camera does such a good job I’m not sure why I ever take one of my “fancy” cameras.
There are several booths for two by the windows overlooking Michigan Avenue in the restaurant and I was lucky enough to be seated on one of them. Well, maybe not entirely lucky. Full disclosure: they sort of know me there (or at least their Open Table computer system does). Several years ago I photographed a special dinner they had to celebrate Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday. Michael Jordan was not actually there, but it was a great meal and they liked the pictures. Since then, I’ve gotten a personal hello from the manager on duty almost every time I have returned. They also honored me with my own personalized steak knife.
I am not much of a celebrity chaser. Seeing or even meeting famous athletes, singers, actors or whatever doesn’t impress me and is not something I try to do. (There are many I would love to meet and actually have a chance to sit down and talk to, but that’s a very different—and very unlikely—scenario). I wonder how many people see my name on the knife among all the famous names and wonder “Who the heck is David Pruett?”
Now, if you think the knife biases me in my comments about the restaurant, I would say no. My earlier article was written before they made me a knife and I don’t think you’ll find much difference in content or tone in that post. Remember, I do not claim to be a “restaurant critic.” I’m just a guy who enjoys good food, photography and writing, so I put them together in this blog. I don’t generally write about places I don’t like, unless they have committed some egregious sin of food or service that I think people should know about. If I didn’t like my experience at Michael Jordan’s, I most likely would just not write about it. The same applies to anywhere else I go, whether a hot dog stand on the street or a Michelin 3★ Temple of Gastronomy. If I write good things about a place, it’s because I enjoyed it on that particular visit. Your mileage may vary.
Anyway, let’s get back to the food, shall we?
When I go to a steakhouse, I tend to order steakhouse classics. Why else would you go to a steakhouse? If I wanted Italian or French or Chinese or some modern, trendy cuisine I would go to an appropriate restaurant. I usually start a meal with dishes that you might call classic or you might call cliché, but which I like a lot. A good old Shrimp Cocktail, a Wedge Salad with “ordinary” iceberg lettuce, French Onion Soup or Lobster Bisque. Any of these can be perfectly delicious if well-prepared, or perfectly awful if poorly made. Tonight, however, my eye landed on a salad I had not tried before: the Mighty Vine Tomato Salad featuring local tomatoes, charred sweet onion, buttermilk blue cheese and Nueske’s bacon,
This was basically all the good stuff you would find on a Wedge Salad, just without the wedge. I don’t know where they managed to find flavorful, ripe local tomatoes anywhere near Chicago in April, but, wherever these came from, they were good. I confessed my love of Wisconsin’s Nueske’s bacon in my previous report on Michael Jordan’s. That small piece of bacon on top of the salad was enough to add a flavorful bit to every bite. (I could have asked for and eaten 10 full rashers of bacon, but I was a model of restraint.) Grilled sweet onions are delicious with almost anything. Add some fresh basil leaves and a few blue cheese crumbles and you have a salad that is full of flavors that play very well together.
The menu did not specify, but I am pretty sure that the buttermilk blue cheese on the salad was from Roth Cheese, also located in Wisconsin. That is the cheese used in the sauce they pour over garlic bread, like this:
This is a half-portion of bread. It is listed as an appetizer on the menu, but somewhere along the way it occurred to me that this would be a perfect side for a steak, and so it is, at least for me. I realize that some people are purists and like their steak with, at most, some salt and pepper. Most people, however, want a starch on the side; maybe bread or French Fries or mashed potatoes. Garlic is another flavor that many people like with their hunk-o-beef, either as garlic powder sprinkled on the steak as it grills or as roasted garlic served on the side. Many steakhouses also offer the option of a blue cheese crust on a steak. So why not put all these together into one dish: garlic bread with blue cheese. It works for me. I almost always order this to come with my steak at Michael Jordan’s. Feel free to go with the beef fat-fried French Fries of the Mashed Potato Trio if that is more to your taste.
Normally I eat here with Valeria and often with some friends, so we order a bottle (or two) of wine. Since I was alone on this occasion I did not want to order a whole bottle (although it is legal in Chicago for a restaurant to seal up any leftover wine so you can take it home with you—an extremely sensible law, in my view). Not surprisingly, their wine list is strong in reds, especially Pinot Noirs (my usual choice) as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends.
Tonight, however, I was ready for just a good cocktail with my meal. Like most good restaurants these days, Michael Jordan’s has put some thought into developing original, but not crazy, cocktails. Gone (mostly, at least) are the days of day-glo colored “martinis.” (I don’t think I ever saw those at Michael Jordan’s.) They have been replaced in most places by premium cocktails featuring a few, excellent ingredients.
A Martini, by the way, is a drink made with Gin (or, if you absolutely must, Vodka) and dry Vermouth. Those sweet concoctions that came in Martini glasses are cocktails. I thought I had lost that war of words, but there are hopeful signs that the word Martini as a generic term is slowly being used less. I ordered a simple Manhattan with, if memory serves, Bulleit® Rye.
The first Bulleit Whiskey was created back in the mid-1800s by Augustus Bulleit. It was produced by distilling a fermented mash that was mostly made from rye. A mash is grain (one or a mixture of several) that has been ground, mixed with water and heated to allow natural enzymes to turn some the starch in the grain into sugar. The mash is then fermented by adding yeast to convert the sugar to alcohol. Distill the resulting liquid and, depending on the grains used, you get the raw material for many of your favorite spirits from Vodka to Bourbon to Scotch.
Augustus Bulleit produced his whiskey from a mash that was about ⅔ Rye and ⅓ corn, which would be labeled Rye Whiskey in the US today. Bourbon, by definition, is distilled from a mash that contain at least 51% corn (the balance can be rye, wheat, or barley, alone or in combination). The brand was revived in 1987 by Augustus Bulleit’s great-great grandson, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., who began producing a Bourbon from 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley. Later, a true Rye Whiskey, made with whopping 95% rye, was added to the product line. The company was sold to Seagrams in 1997 and is now owned by Diageo, a British conglomerate that is one of the largest producers of distilled spirits, beer and wine in the world. (Do names like Smirnoff, Bailey’s, Veuve Clicquot and Guinness ring a bell? These are just a few of the Diageo brands.)
History and big-business aside, Bulleit is one of my favorite brands of both Bourbon and Rye. The Rye, to my taste, is a bit lighter and spicier, the Bourbon a bit heavier and nuttier. I normally order a Manhattan “up” (that is, chilled with ice then strained into a cold glass with no additional ice). Ice in the glass dilutes the drink too much as it melts. Many bars these days use large, usually clear (or nearly so) cubes or spheres of ice. These are made in special, very expensive, machines that remove impurities and air from the water so it freezes very clear. Michael Jordan’s uses the big square ones and I am happy to see those in a glass as it keeps the drink very cold but dilutes it very slowly.
As long as we are going all geeky on cocktails (see what happens when I am left alone in a restaurant to think about these things?), let’s address the “shaken vs stirred” question. James Bond famously orders his Martini “shaken, not stirred.” Professional mixologist will tell you that Bond was a bit uncouth; a Martini should be stirred, not shaken. Moreover, we learned in Casino Royale (Ian Fleming’s book—not the movie) that Bond’s drink is really what’s called a Vesper, made with 3 parts Gin, 1 part Vodka, and ½ part Lillet, which is a French apéritif somewhat similar to Vermouth. Bond is very precise in his order:
“A dry martini. One. In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordon’s [Gin], one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”
Kina Lillet is no longer made, but Lillet Blanc is very similar. I have tried Vespers and have some friends who love them. I prefer the classic Gin and Vermouth Martini made with about 5 parts gin and 1 part Vermouth (with apologies to those who think a full drop of vermouth is too much.)
Oops, sorry. Got way off on a tangent there. Back to shaken vs stirred. A Manhattan (and a Martini) should be stirred. Here is a good video by Robert Hess that explains why. It also explains why you should never buy or eat those neon-red Maraschino cherries again.
And if you still don’t believe it, here is the same guy doing a demonstration of what a shaken Manhattan looks like and what a stirred one looks like.
Why should we listen to Robert Hess? Well, he is an expert mixologist and one of the founders of The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. He is a technology evangelist for Microsoft. (I have no idea how that fits into the cocktail picture.) He also literally wrote the book (OK, a book) on the subject.
For the record, I prefer my Manhattan stirred and my Martini shaken. Please feel free to order and make yours as you like!
Now, while I was going through all that my garlic bread was getting cold. Let’s get back to the solid portion of the meal. I order a NY strip about 80 or 90% of the time in steakhouses. I like ribeyes, too, but don’t like all the extra fat that comes with them (though that is precisely why some people prefer them). The filet is generally too lean, not very flavorful and a bit “mushy” in texture due to the fact that the muscle it is cut from is high up on a cow’s back and does little or no work. The strip is usually well marbled and has a great beefy flavor and texture.
So, tonight, in keeping with my not-usual selections, I ordered a filet. Specifically, Filet with Laughing Bird Shrimp, Chipotle butter, lime and cilantro.
I generally think a NY strip or a ribeye should be served with nothing more than salt and pepper (maybe a little garlic powder) rubbed in before cooking. Filets, because they are naturally less flavorful, can use a tasty sauce or topping to help them along a bit. That is not at all a hard and fast rule. Sometimes I like condiments like Chimichurri sauce (here’s one of about a million online recipes) or roasted garlic to go with my NY strip and sometimes a plainly grilled filet is fine. Naturally, your preferences may vary with your taste and your mood and that’s fine with me, but, I generally think filet can use a bit of help and I decided this dish was worth a try.
Some of you might be wondering about “laughing bird shrimp.” A shrimp that laughs and flies like a bird? No, it’s a brand name. As you may know, most shrimp that is sold in the US comes from southeast Asia. The fish farms there are almost always dirty, use lots of antibiotics and the workers are treated and paid poorly. That makes for cheap, but poor quality shrimp. Meanwhile, our domestic shrimp producers catching wild shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico are hard pressed to compete. Wild shrimp are simply more expensive to harvest, though the quality is (usually) much higher. Just try a farmed shrimp and a wild caught shrimp side-by-side and you will see (and taste) the difference. In general, I don’t oppose commercial farming when it is done right, but most seafood farming operations around the world are run like the southeast Asian shrimp farms. I only buy wild caught seafood unless I know the farmed product is from a source I can trust.
Notice that I said “most” not “all” seafood farming operations are atrocious. Enter a company called CleanFish, which seeks out small, sustainable producers that are both environmentally friendly and sell products that are high quality. Laughing bird shrimp are produces in small farms in Costa Rica in water that is constantly circulated and cleaned using no antibiotics and a vegetable feed. Chefs in many of the best restaurants in the country source products from them. They are actually more expensive (generally) than wild caught shrimp, so they are not driving our fisherman out of business. CleanFish is a source used by many fine restaurants that care about quality and sustainability.
So the surf part of this “surf and turf” dish was delicious. The texture of the shrimp was perfect and the flavor was clean. It goes almost without saying that the steak was delicious. It is hard to screw up a filet. Just season it and cook it to the right temperature (medium for me—order yours as you like it). That was done. The sauce was a nice accompaniment that complimented the beef without covering up the relatively delicate flavor of this cut. A little spice and smoke from the chipotle peppers (which are dried, smoked jalapeños, as you may know), some acidity and freshness from the lime, herbaceous notes from the cilantro and some butter just to bring it all together in a smooth sauce. I’ll probably order my NY strip on my next visit, but I certainly would not hesitate to order this again. I really enjoyed it.
While desserts are usually reasonably sized at Michael Jordan’s, I was going to be good and quit there. Then I looked at the dessert menu and I perused the after dinner drinks, as I usually do. There was a 1953 Kopke Vintage Port listed by the glass. Damn. They had me. I really like vintage port and will often, but certainly not always, order a glass after dinner. However, this one was from 1953, the year I was born. At US$79 a glass, it was not cheap, but that is only $1.25/year, which is a pretty reasonable price for the storage costs alone. I am quite certain that this was a Colheita port from 1953, not a Vintage Port from 1953. What’s the difference? Glad you asked.
Drop by your local wine shop (or peruse their selection on line) and you will find a number of styles of Port. Port is generally a sweet red wine (there is some white and a little rosé Port made, but I would not go out of my way to find either) from the Oporto region of Portugal. Port-style wines are made in many places, but, just like true Champagne only comes from the Champagne region in France and true Chianti only comes from the Tuscany region in Italy, “real” Port only comes from Portugal. What makes Port different from other wines is that the grape juice is only fermented part way, then the yeast is killed and the fermentation stopped by the addition of neutral grain spirits (think Vodka) that raises the alcohol level to around 20% and leaves about 10% residual sugar, making it quite sweet. (The exact percentage of alcohol and sugar vary by style and producer.)
You will find a number of kinds of Port on the shelves of a well-stocked wine shop:
Ruby Port. A Ruby Port is fermented and fortified, then stored in neutral concrete or stainless steel tanks to preserve its fruity freshness. Each Port producer has a house style of Ruby and blends wine from several years to keep it consistent. This is the cheapest style of Port, but it can be pleasant, if not terribly complex, to drink and works well for making Port sauces.
Tawny Port. A tawny port is aged in wooden barrels for many years to mature before it is bottled. 10, 20 30 and 40 year old tawnys are common, where the age refers to the average age of the wines used to blend the final product. The wine slowly oxidizes over the years and the bright red-purple colors fade and become browner (i.e, “tawny”). Once the are bottled, they do not evolve much. These can be delicious, nutty wines that, depending on the age and reputation of the producer, range from not terribly expensive to a significant investment. Good ones are definitely worth a premium and deserve to be sipped slowly. They are often available by the glass in good bars and restaurants.
Vintage Port. When a producer considers the harvest in a given year to be of exceptional quality, a Vintage Port is produced. The grapes are from a single year (vintage), fermented normally, aged about two years in wooden barrels, then bottled. They are bright red/purple, fruity wines when young and can take decades to slowly mature in the bottle. Contrary to popular belief, all wines do not improve with many years of aging. Vintage Port is one that does. (My 1977 Vintage Ports are just hitting their stride.) It throws a lot of sediment (black solids that collect in the bottom of the bottle as a normal part of aging) and the clear wine must be carefully decanted off. Good bars and restaurants will often have one or two Vintage Ports on their by-the-glass list, one relatively young and one more mature. These are the wines that make or break a producer’s reputation. Only about 2% of Port is Vintage Port. Not surprisingly, they are the most expensive, costing US$50-100/bottle or more when first released. The price steadily increases as the wine ages into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars per bottle.
Colheita Port. Colheita is a Tawny Port made from a single vintage. It is aged for a long time—20 years or more—in wood, then bottled. It can retain some of the fruitiness of a Vintage Port while taking on some of the nuttiness of a Tawny Port. This is what I believe was in my glass at Michale Jordan’s. 1953 was not an exceptional year in Oporto and, to my knowledge, no Vintage Ports were made.
There are a few other styles of port, but we’ll save those for another day. Take a look at the one I had.
Notice that there is a little brown color at the edge of the wine in the glass, but that the wine overall is still very red. This wine (well, not this glass, but other bottles of the same wine) will probably live longer than me, and I am planning on sticking around for quite a while. Here is a data sheet on the wine from the company website.
One last note on the wine: what is now the C. N. Kopke house began producing Port in 1638. It is the oldest Port house producing today. Two German brothers, Christiano and Nicolaus Kopke founded the company that was named after them in 1841. They are especially known for their Colheita wines, another reason I am quite sure my glass was a Colheita and not a Vintage Port (a distinction that perhaps matters only to wine geeks like me). I sipped on this for about 30 minutes, knowing that I will not often taste wines from my birth year (1953 was not a particularly good year for wines so few have lasted anywhere near this long). While I was sipping, the idea for this blog came to mind, so here it is!
You cannot throw a rock in Chicago without hitting a steakhouse. Most of them are anywhere from good to excellent and I would not presume to tell you which ones you will find are the best to your taste. I like Michael Jordan’s for the reasons I have talked about here and in my previous article. Give it a try. You might like it, too, and may even see MJ himself there (though I never have).
Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse
Address: 505 North Michigan Ave Chicago, IL 60611 (In the Hotel Intercontinental)
Phone: (312) 321-8823
Dress Code: Smart Casual
Price Range: $31—$50
Hours: Lunch & Dinner
Lunch Daily 11:00am-3:00pm
Dinner: Mon-Thu 5:00pm-10:00pm
AMEX, Discover, MasterCard, Visa
All images were taken with an iPhone 6 Plus camera. Post-processing was done in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins.
The author is an member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.