Lawry’s, Chicago, November 2017

No time to read this blog post all the way through? Fine. Here is the bottom line: 

If you want a classic, perfectly prepared Prime Rib dinner with a salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, Yorkshire Pudding, a vegetable or two and a well made cocktail or good glass of wine, the Lawry’s, The Prime Rib is the place for you. If the thought of a big slice of  beef on your plate is not appealing, just move on; nothing to see here. Yes, there are other choices on the menu if someone in your party is not a beef eater, but, as the name implies, Prime Rib is the star here.

The first Lawry’s restaurant was opened in Beverly Hills, CA in 1938.  Lawrence L. “Lawry” Frank and Walter Van de Kamp partnered on the concept and their families still run the company today. (The Frank and Van de Camp families were also connected by marriage.) There were several innovations that made the restaurant stand out.

First, a carving station created by Lawry Frank. It was designed to hold and keep warm several racks of Prime Rib along with the various side dishes offered with the beef, and a plate warmer.

The cart is wheeled to each table, the meat is carved to order and the sides are served to order.

The second innovation was serving a green salad before the meal. While not entirely unheard of, most salads in the 1930s were based on fruit or Jell-O® and served after the meal as was (and is) more traditional in Europe. Moreover, the Lawry’s salad was mixed and dressed in a large, stainless steel bowl that was spun on a bed of ice (“The Spinning Bowl Salad,” which we’ll see below). 

Finally, Frank labeled a spice blend that he had developed at an earlier restaurant “Lawry’s Seasoned Salt” and began selling it at the new restaurant. Many people who have never even seen a Lawry’s restaurant (currently located in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, and Las Vegas in the US; Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Osaka, and Seoul in the rest of the world) are familiar with their seasoned salt, available in almost every grocery store and, of course, on Amazon.

 

It is a good, all-purpose seasoning mix that was around long before celebrity chefs starting bottling their famous blends (and it costs a fraction of the price of most of those). There is also a Lawry’s Seasoned Pepper that we’ll discuss later.

The concept worked and, while other items have been added to the menu, the main (and, for me, at least, the only) reason to go to Lawry’s is for the Prime Rib.

A quick word on what “Prime Rib” really means. The cut of beef commonly called “Prime Rib” is more properly called a “Rib Roast” or “Standing Rib Roast”—quite literally the cow’s ribs and the meat attached. “Prime” actually refers to a grade of meet as determined by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Only a small amount (less that 5%) of the beef produced in the US is graded Prime, which is the tenderest, most heavily marbled (marbling is the fat you see running through some cuts of meat) beef that is produced in the US (until Wagyu cattle came along, but that is a different blog). Most grocery store meat is “Choice,” the next step down from Prime or “Select,” one notch down from Choice. Properly cooked, Select grade beef is utterly delicious and tender and costs a fraction of Prime grade beef. Select has less fat and, therefore, less flavor and requires even more care in cooking to get the best results, but it is perfectly good beef.

However, the USDA ruled that any Standing Rib Roast can be called “Prime Rib,” no matter the grade of the beef, because it is one of the 8 primal cuts of beef that the whole carcass is broken down into. Confusing? Yes, but, as a practical matter, a well-seasoned and properly roasted Choice Standing Rib Roast will be hard for most people to distinguish from a Prime Standing Rib Roast unless they are side-by-side and tasted carefully.

The key is in the cooking, and that is where the real arguments begin. Search Google or YouTube for Prime Rib recipes and you will find many variations. Sear at high temperature (e.g., 500°F, 260°C) then roast at a low temperature (e.g., 225°F, 107°C). Roast at a low temperature, finishing with a high-temperature sear. Cook at a constant, moderate temperate (e.g., 325°F, 163°C). Or slow cook in a smoker (yum!). 

I have tried all these methods over the years and they all work well. The hardest part is just hitting the temperature that you like your beef. 

Most restaurants use a long, slow, low temperature cooking method. This works beautifully when you are cooking a whole, 7-rib roast. The ends will be a little more done (medium-ish) and the center cuts will be rare or medium-rare, so the restaurant can give you the degree of doneness you like. 

Few home cooks, however, are going to tackle a whole rack of beef ribs. One rib can easily feed two adults and even as many as four people if served as part of a big holiday meal. Four ribs can serve 12 people or more, so you’ll need  big crowd (and a big oven) if you want to do a whole rib roast.

If you are cooking a Standing Rib Roast (Prime or Choice) at home, cooking it sous vide (pronounce “sue veed,” French for “under vacuum”) is, in my opinion, the only way to go. What is sous vide? It’s a technique in which food is sealed under vacuum in a plastic bag and placed in a water bath heated to the exact temperature to which you want the food cooked. So, people who like a nice medium-rare beef steak usually find a sweet spot somewhere in the 135—140°F (57—60°C) range. If you sear a steak in a fry pan or on a grill to an internal temperature of, say, 135°F, there will be a ring of meat just below the surface that is well done, then medium well, then medium, with only the center the steak a perfect medium-rare (assuming you thing medium rare is perfect). Using sous vide, meat will be a perfect medium-rare from edge-to-edge.

You will notice one problem when you pull a steak out of the sous vide bag, however: it looks terrible. The surface will be gray and wet instead of the beautiful browned surface that is a big part of what makes a steak taste good. Not to worry. This is easily fixed by a quick sear in a very hot fry pan, a blow torch (a blow torch? Yes! Often used in the kitchen and introduced to American cooks by Julia Child), or a few minutes in a very hot (500°F or more) oven. This is an amazing technique for almost any meat or fish. Expensive, tender cuts are perfectly cooked and meltingly tender, while cheap, tough cuts are transformed into buttery-smooth deliciousness.

Sous vide was first used in France in 1974 and was soon adopted by some of the greatest Michelin-starred chefs and restaurants in the world. Initially, sous vide units cost thousands of dollars—way more than even the most dedicated home cook would want to invest. Now a basic water heater/circulator that can be hooked onto any big pot, plastic container, or cooler you have laying around can be purchased for as little as $75, and even very good units are one the $100—200 range. Here are three excellent brands.

 

The Sansaire unit was one of the first that was affordable for home use and I have been using one for years. I recently added the Joule unit and love it. I haven’t used the Anova, but many people I know swear by it as well.

If you want to use a blow torch to sear the meat coming out of the sous vide bath (and you know you do, at least if you are a guy), the Searzall Torch Attachment is a great tool to attach to your propane torch.

 

There is a lot more to say about sous vide, but I need to get back to Lawry’s.  Here is a video from the Sous Vide Everything YouTube Channel (I love these guys!) making a basic Rib Roast using sous vide.

 

They seasoned the meat with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Don’t like garlic powder? Just leave it out. Want to add some thyme or rosemary? Just toss a few sprigs into the bag with the meat. Like Lawry’s Seasoned Salt or Emeril Lagasse’s Cajun rub? No problem! The roast will be done in a few hours, but you can put it in early and just leave it until you are ready to sear, carve and serve. It will not overcook and, if anything, will just get more tender. You’ll never have to worry about timing the roast for your holiday feast again. It’s ready when you are. 

Here is a nice intro to sous vide cooking in general.

 

OK, back to Lawry’s. The first Lawry’s outside of Beverly Hills was started in Chicago in 1974 when the Frank family bought the historic (1893) McCormick Mansion on Ontario Street, just off of Michigan Avenue in the heart of Chicago’s Magnificent mile. The old mansion has a fascinating history and you can purchase tickets to take a tour, if you like. A local Chicago TV station recently did a story on the mansion and you can take a peek behind the scenes by clicking here.

Since I very much enjoy a classic, All-American (with a nod to our friends in England) beef and potatoes meal (at least once in a while), the Lawry’s formula works for me. I started the classic meal with a classic cocktail: a Bombay Sapphire Martini, up, with regular olives.

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The Martini was perfectly made and came out with some warm, crusty bread that was exactly right for the meal.

Next up, the Famous Original Spinning Bowl Salad.

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The salad is made with a mixture of Romaine lettuce, iceberg lettuce, spinach, beet strips, treated eggs and croutons. Why is it called a “spinning bowl salad”? Take a look at mine being made.

 

It’s a pretty basic green salad with a light, tasty sherry vinaigrette. A bit revolutionary in 1938, pretty standard today, but completely appropriate and enjoyable in the context of this meal. Lawry’s Seasoned Pepper, which the waitress suggested was great on the salad, is on the table next to the Lawry’s Seasoned Salt.

Finally, it’s time for the main attraction: meat. The carving station rolls up and is opened to reveal the Prime Rib and sides.

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The chef asks you how much beef you want (5 cuts of varying size and thickness are listed on the menu) and your preferred degree of doneness, then proceeds to slice and plate your order as requested. The sides you specify are added to the plate and it is presented.

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The beef was meltingly tender and delicious, enhanced by a splash of au jus. The potatoes were creamy and the gravy had a rich beef flavor. 

I had a nice glass of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon with my entrée. The Jordan Winery in Sonoma County has been making Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley since 1976. I remember some of the early vintages as being quite good and reasonably priced but, over the years, the price has gone up and the quality settled into mostly middle-of-the-road. It may be that the winery decided on a strategy of producing a wine that would work well in restaurants, drinking young and being very approachable. I don’t even remember what vintage was poured, but it was typical of recent Jordan’s—pleasant and drinkable, fine with a nice piece of beef, but certainly not the highlight of the meal.

As you can see, I did not order any of the standard vegetables. More on that in a minute. Yorkshire Pudding comes with every Prime Rib order along with some grated fresh horseradish (a must for me on a beef roast like this) and Whipped Cream Horseradish made with whipped cream, horseradish, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt and a dash of Tabasco®.

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Yorkshire Pudding is a savory, popover-type bread made by pouring a thin batter made with eggs, flour and water into a hot baking tin that contains hot, melted fat (beef dripping are traditional, bacon fat is awesome) and baked in a very hot oven. They are first recorded in cookbooks from the early 1700s from Northern England (Yorkshire is in the north). At the time, “pudding” was commonly used to refer to both savory and sweet dishes, though in modern usage puddings are most often sweet. They are not difficult to make.

 

Because Yorkshire Pudding was made with cheap ingredients, it was often served with gravy as a first course to fill people up before more expensive meat courses were served. The pudding itself is not all that flavorful, so gravy or jam or some other enhancement definitely improves it.

I mentioned that I opted not to go with one of the usual vegetables from the carving cart. I ordered Crispy Onion Strings instead.

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Not what most people would consider a “healthy” vegetable, but I love onions made this way. Onion rings are generally much too heavily breaded for me, but these were perfect.

I suspect the desserts are killer. They include Sticky Toffee Pudding, Chocolate Cake, Cheesecake and more, but I had no room left after the main meal.

So, I’ll finish as I started: if your mouth waters at the thought of a tender, juicy hunk of roast beef with some mashed potatoes and veggies on the side, Lawry’s definitely has a seat waiting for you. Nothing trendy in sight, just a traditional meat and potatoes feast. I was in the mood for such a meal, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. No restaurant stays in business in trendy LA for 80 years without doing something right. Similarly, a beef-centric restaurant will not survive over 40 years in beef crazy Chicago unless the meat is top notch. 

 
Lawry’s, The Prime Rib
Address: 100 E Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60611
Phone: (312) 787-5000
Reservations: opentable.com
Website: http://www.lawrysonline.com/lawrys-primerib/chicago
Dress Code: Casual Elegant

Price Range: $31-50
Hours: Monday – Friday: 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm
           Saturday: 4:30 pm – 10 pm
           Sunday: 3:30 pm – 8:00 pm
Credit Cards: AMEX, Diners Club, Discover, JCB, MasterCard, Visa

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Lawry's, 100 E Ontario St, Chicago

The author is a member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6500 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F/4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 35mm (52mm full frame equivalent) F/1.8 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins and Skylum Luminar®. 

 

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