Vegan I am not. Carnivore I am. I love a great steak, which makes Chicago a pretty darn good place to live. There are—literally—a dozen good steakhouses within a short walk from my condo. There are a dozen more that are a long walk or a short cab ride. Some, like Morton’s, Fleming’s, Sullivan’s, and Ruth’s Chris can be found in quite a few cities across the country. Others, like the Chicago Chop House and Gene & Georgetti, are one-of-a-kind originals.
One of my favorites (I would be hard pressed to select ONE favorite in this city) is Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse. It is a small chain, with other locations in Connecticut and in New York City, but it is pretty tightly controlled. I freely admit I found Michael Jordan the basketball player to be an awe-inspiring talent, but that does not mean that I would eat in a restaurant just because it has his name, or the name of any other celebrity, above the door. In fact, my general policy is to avoid celebrity-owned restaurants. There are certainly exceptions, but I go to restaurants to eat great food, not to see the rich and famous.
I understand that MJ (as his friends call him, and we’ll just pretend I am his friend for the purposes of this blog post) does visit the restaurant on occasion, but I have never seen him. The management there tells me that he is involved in the menu and wine selections. Given the way he defends his name and reputation, I find that easy to believe.
MJ or no MJ, what matters is the food. How do you distinguish between the many excellent steakhouses in this and many other cities? First, of course, there must be great cuts of beef. Increasingly these days, there is a Wagyu, generally American or Australian but sometimes the genuine Japanese article (Kobe). MJ’s, however, is sticking to the tried-and-true wet and dry-aged USDA Prime domestic beef for their top-of-the-line steaks, and that is fine with me. Wagyu beef, properly prepared, is utterly delicious but almost too rich. [Update: 04/2015: My go-to place for Wagyu beef is actually a Japanese restaurant, Roka Akor, which I wrote about here.] USDA Choice beef, which MJ’s uses for some of its cuts, is also a great choice in some cases, as I will explain later.
For great beef flavor, however, USDA Prime American beef is hard to beat. But what is “properly prepared”? First, you have to get the temperature right. Some folks like their beef so rare that a good veterinarian can revive it. Other like it well done, perhaps to re-sole their shoes in an emergency. I am not going to tell you how your should like your steak cooked; whatever works for you is fine with me—it’s your steak. I come down squarely in the middle: medium, please, which is a slightly red to warm pink center for me. No matter what the customer calls for, a good steak house will get it right, though I am amazed at how often an expensive hunk of beef gets presented to me significantly under or over-cooked.
Second, the meat must be seasoned. Salt and pepper are fine, but they must be there while the meat is being cooked, not after. If you want to add a bit of other flavorings, that’s fine, but major flavor modifiers (blue cheese, sauces, etc.) should be options that are never automatically applied.
Third, bonus points for grilling over real charcoal or wood. Not absolutely required, but, for example, the mesquite grill at Roka Akor and the citrus and oak wood pit at Florida’s Charley’s Steakhouses add great flavors that, to me, compliment the beef wonderfully.
MJ’s gets the two requirements right. The steaks come out nicely seasoned and I don’t remember one that I or anyone in my party ordered that was not served at the requested temperature. No charcoal or wood here, but that’s OK.
The cocktail program is good and the wine list is very good. I started out in classic steakhouse style with classic cocktail: a Bombay Sapphire Gin Martini.
I normally go with 3 regular olives in my Martini, but I was feeling wild and crazy that night so I ordered 3 blue cheese stuffed olive AND a twist. I was obviously out of control before I took the first sip.
There are many steakhouses that can get my two requirements—proper seasoning and proper temperature—right (although there are a surprising number that can’t). What can really distinguish a high-end place are the appetizers, sides and desserts. I don’t think that it is a requirement that the menu feature all trendy items in response to some current fad (Kale Wrapped Shrimp on a Bed of Quinoa, anyone?). A classic shrimp cocktail or crab cake to start can be just fine, as long as they are good. French fries, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach can all be delicious as long as they are done well.
MJ’s does well in this regard, serving excellent versions of classics along with some more modern alternatives. It is not unusual for me to order a shrimp cocktail in a steakhouse. Cliché, I know, but when I was a kid a shrimp cocktail was a rare and costly treat usually only seen on holidays, so they fill a nostalgia niche for me. (Nothing wrong with having biases, at least about food, as long as you know what your biases are and can admit them.) MJ’s version comes with shaved celery and a little vodka in the cocktail sauce.
The shrimp were perfectly cooked. That’s not a given, as it is easy to overcook them, which makes them tough, or undercook them, which makes them close to sashimi which is not what I ordered. These were spot on. The cocktail sauce was delicious—just spicy enough for me. I shoved the celery to the side because the flavor is too strong for me. Another bias/quirk in my taste. For some reason, I don’t like celery in much of anything. The taste overwhelms everything else for me. Most people expect it in many things and enjoy both the flavor and the crunch, but I just move it aside with out prejudice.
We were a party of five, so we shared a number of appetizers. Another classic on MJ’s menu are crab cakes, which, somehow, I didn’t get a picture of. That’s OK, they look like crab cakes; in this case, large crab cakes. They are mostly crab with just enough filler to hold them together. The Meyer lemon aioli is what puts them a notch or two above “just a crab cake.” They bring just enough citrus and garlic to the party to elevate the flavor of the dish without losing the crab flavor. Aioli is one of those condiments that can make almost anything taste good, but can also overwhelm a delicate dish.
“What is aioli?,” some of you might ask. Originally it was a Mediterranean sauce made of only garlic and olive oil (the name is actually derived from the words for “garlic” and “oil” in the Catalan and Provençal dialects). It required a lot of work with a moral and pestle to grind the garlic and oil together into a stable emulsion. Some still insist that is the only true aioli, but most chefs these days accept the inclusion of egg yolks, lemon juice and a perhaps touch of mustard to make what purists would call “garlic flavored mayonnaise”, not aioli. I’ll leave it to the Master Chefs to sort that one out. It’s delicious either way. Here is a video that explains the sauce in some detail and shows how to make it using a mortar and pestle (i.e., the hard way).
Don’t want to work that hard? Put all the ingredients except the oil in a blender or food processor (an immersion blender also works great using that tall bowl that came with it). Blend/process until everything is chopped very fine and combined into a smooth sauce. Then, just like making a mayonnaise, drizzle the oil, slowly at first, then faster. Use more or less garlic, all olive oil, all vegetable oil, or a mixture as your taste dictates. If no purists are watching, toss in some tarragon or basil or even chiles or smoked paprika (hot or sweet). You can make a dozen delicious variations all in a couple of minutes each using a machine.
Bacon is pretty trendy these days. Who knew that this staple, which for so long was reviled as being too fatty, too salty and full of nitrites would become a darling of the food world again? I’m all for it. MJ’s uses Nueske’s Double Smoked Bacon and glazes it with Burton’s maple syrup.
Nueske’s is located in northern Wisconsin, so it is a fairly local product and has been one of my favorite brands of bacon since before I ever heard of Michael Jordan. Similarly, Burton’s Maplewood Farm is southeast of Chicago in Indiana, so it is another local product. (Try some of their Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup on your pancakes or waffles sometime. Delicious!) If you are not a vegetarian or keeping Kosher or Halal, this stuff is fantastic. If you are having a salad with your meal, order some of this and cut it up to sprinkle on the salad. For that matter, it makes an excellent side with your steak. This is a much better approach than wrapping a piece of bacon around a steak and having it come out burned in some spots and almost raw in others.
The signature appetizer here is the Garlic Bread with Wisconsin Roth Buttermilk Blue® Cheese Fondue. If you like garlic and blue cheese, this stuff is addictive. Even if you are not a big fan of blue cheese, you may find this delicious as the flavor of blue cheese is quite mild. Roth Cheese is an artisan cheese maker in Monroe, Wisconsin. Wisconsin has long been known as a leading dairy state. Their license plates proudly proclaim it to be “Americans Dairyland.” When I was a kid, most of the cheeses that came out of Wisconsin were pretty mild Cheddars and Colbys and the like. Now there are cheeseries that make flavorful products that rival the quality of their European counterparts. (I did not know “cheesery” was a word until I looked at their website.) Their Buttermilk Blue® is delicious. MJ’s uses it to make a terrific sauce that they pour over hot chunks of garlic bread made with what I believe is a type of focaccia.
This is not diet food, but it is delicious. [Update 4/2015: After this visit, it occurred to me that the best way to order this bread was as a side with the steak rather than as an appetizer. Think about it: garlic, blue cheese and bread; all great with steak.]
OK, enough preliminaries. Let’s get to the main event. Our party of five ordered one filet mignon…
…and two Porterhouse steaks, each intended to feed (at least) two people.
I mentioned earlier that it was not always necessary to pay a premium for USDA Prime beef. The difference between Prime beef (usually the choice of high-end steakhouses), Choice (the usual supermarket grade in better stores) and Select is just the amount of fat (or “marbling”) running through the muscle tissues. Prime has the highest amount of fat (marbling) and hence is generally the tenderest and most flavorful. Only about 2% of the beef produced in the US is Prime. Choice has less marbling and so will be a little less juicy and tender. However, Choice beef is much less expensive than Prime and a good Choice steak is more than good enough to grill up and serve to anyone. Select beef has still less marbling and is best suited for braising and other techniques that will help tenderize the meat (slow cooker, anyone?).
With that in mind, it does not make much sense to pay a steep premium for Prime Filet Mignon (or any steak cut from the tenderloin). Why? Because the tenderloin is a muscle that naturally has relatively low fat and is very tender because it is not used very much as the cow goes about it’s daily walking and whatever else it is cows do to keep busy. While a Prime Ribeye or NY Strip will have visibly and significantly more marbling that a Choice version, the tenderloin won’t be much different. So the filet here is Choice beef while the Porterhouse (which has a piece of filet on one side of the bone and a NY Strip on the other is Prime beef. That makes the Strip side significantly juicer and more flavorful than a Choice cut would be. That’s why serious steak eaters order rib-eyes and strips rather than filet. Sure, filet is more tender, but the real flavor is in the other cuts.
Just as an aside, Prime Rib is not necessarily cut from Prime beef (though can be). When a cow is slaughtered it is cut into 9 so-called “primal cuts,” big sections of the animal that are packaged and shipped to butchers for further processing. The rib section is one of these primal cuts, the Primal Rib section or Prime Rib. The term refers to the cut and not the grade of the meat. You will find Prime Rib made with USDA Prime beef in good steakhouses and it can be buttery tender.
Back to our steaks. The filet was, as it should be, super tender, cooked to a perfect media-rare (as ordered), seasoned and served with roasted Cipollini (chip-o-LEE-nee, Italian for “little onion”) onions. Since the filet has relatively little flavor, it is an excellent candidate for a little sauce and something like onions or mushrooms on the side to add more flavor and some texture variation. Cipollini (small, round, flat, relatively sweet onion developed in Italy) are often braised, sautéed or roasted with some combination of vinegar and/or wine with a dash of sugar to cut the acidity. MJ’s used Sherry vinegar and it was perfect.
Here is a 5-minute video that shows you the general technique and a recipe very similar to some I have used in the past. You can vary the type of vinegar and wine used and also add herbs like thyme or rosemary if you like. When you are not grilling up steaks, this is an excellent side dish for whatever winter holidays you might celebrate at your house.
When I peel Cipollinis or Pearl Onions (another small onion that is delicious, but difficult to peel), I bring the water to a boil and then drop in the onions for exactly one minute, but I assume Kim’s method in the video works, too.
The Porterhouse was also cooked perfectly medium as we had ordered. It can be more difficult to get the temperature right in a cut with a big bone. The bone adds flavor, but also blocks the heat flow and make uniform cooking more challenging. No problem here.
The meat was seasoned with salt and pepper and delicious all by itself. They did offer two sauces, horseradish and chimichurri, as well as roasted garlic on the side. Perfect for me, as I could enjoy the “pure” beef flavor, add a little horseradish bite, which plays nicely with beef, or add a bit of the herby, garlicky chimichurri sauce. The roasted garlic could be included solo in a bite or included with one of the sauces.
In short, our steaks were beautifully done.
Chimichurri is a sauce from Argentina, a country that, if it’s possible, is even more steak crazy than the United States. The gauchos (Argentinean cowboys) tend el ganado (the cattle) out of the pampas (grasslands). Most cattle in the US are raised on feed—mostly corn—but some premium beef is now grass fed. Most beef in Argentina is grass fed and almost every part of the animal can end up in one form or another on la parrilla (grill). Chimichurri is popular all over Latin America and there are as many recipes as there are cooks. Classic ingredients include parsley, oregano, garlic, onion, vinegar, cumin, olive oil and salt and pepper. If you like a bit of heat, red chile flakes or a little of your favorite hot sauce can be added. Variations are endless, using parsley, cilantro and other green herbs alone or in combination, adding more or less garlic, using different kinds of onions, shallots or chives and different oils or vinegars. Everything gets tossed into a blender or food processor puréed together, although some people prefer to just chop the solid ingredients and the add the oil to make a more textured version rather than a smoother purée. It is great with grilled beef, but it goes well with all sorts of meats, fish and vegetables and can be used as a marinade as well. This recipe is a fairly typical starting point and you can make your own variations from there.
So we were good on the steaks and the sauces. How about some sides? You want fries with that?
MJ’s fries are cooked in beef fat, which adds flavor (one of the secrets of McDonald’s early success with fries). They are also cooked properly—crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. I like my fries plain or with catsup (boring American, I know), but the green onion “ranch” dressing is ok. On other visits, there have been other condiments offered with the fries, so what you get may vary.
Prefer mashed potatoes to fries? No problem.
MJ’s typically offers a trio of mashed potatoes flavored in different ways that vary from time-to-time. Ours were flavored with lobster & sweet corn, goat cheese and roasted garlic. All delicious, but I noticed the goat cheese flavored ones disappeared first.
I’m sure your mother, like mine, insisted that you eat your vegetables. MJ’s serves some nice twists on steakhouse classics. Asparagus is a frequent offering in steakhouses, but it is often just steamed or boiled. Here it is roasted and flavored with some brown butter, tarragon and lemon.
That makes for a much more interesting vegetable without going over-the-top to create something trendy.
Similarly, creamed spinach is often served with a very bland cream sauce, maybe with a bit of garlic or chile flakes in it. MJ’s makes a beautiful gratin flavored with Boursin cheese and a Parmesan crust.
A Parmesan crust makes anything taste better. Boursin is a soft, creamy fresh cow’s milk cheese that was first developed in the Normandy region on France. People liked to mix it with fresh herbs and other flavorings. Commercial versions soon became available that were already flavored. Using Boursin makes for a much richer dish than one made with cream or milk.
You can make a wonderful version of Boursin-like cheese at home using a cream cheese, garlic, a little butter and your favorite herbs all whipped together in a food processor. If you grow your own herbs, or live near a good farmer’s market, you can make up a batch that tastes far better and fresher than the supermarket stuff at a fraction of the cost. You can also use good-quality dried herbs. You can find a typical recipe here. Feel free to mix and match the amount of herbs and garlic to match your own taste.
Once upon a time I did not like mushrooms with my steak. Then I went through a long period when I could not eat a steak unless I had some good sautéed mushrooms to go with it. Nowadays I swing both ways, sometimes in the mood for mushrooms, sometimes not. Plain old button mushrooms sautéed in butter and olive oil with a little garlic, salt and pepper and, if you like some herbs are delicious. MJ’s used Oyster mushrooms, roasted rather than sautéed, with garlic and a white soy vinaigrette, which works great, too.
All that was more than enough for the five of us. We had leftovers, in fact. But we also left room for dessert. 🙂
Portion sizes in steakhouses tend to be somewhere between large and humongous. MJ’s sides are generous, but not extreme. A single portion of dessert can sometimes be enough for a family of 5, but, again, MJ’s keeps the dessert portions reasonable. We chose three to share among us.
First, Key Lime Baked Alaska.
This is a clever combination of two classics, Key Lime Pie (a favorite from Florida, especially Key West) and Baked Alaska, a dessert with roots that go back over 200 years and got overdone and flamed out (pun intended) after enormous popularity in the 50s and 60s.
Key limes once grew abundantly in the Florida keys, hence the name. They were wiped out in a hurricane in 1926 and replaced with the much easier to grow, pick and store Persian (or Tahitian) lime, a variety created in the early 1900s. These are the seedless, thick-skinned limes you will find in your local supermarket. True Key limes (also called Mexican or West Indian limes, among other names) are considerably smaller, thinner skinned and more acidic than Persian limes. They grow on thorny trees that make them harder to pick and the thin skins make them more perishable. Key limes are more aromatic and flavorful than Persian limes, so we have lost something in the switch. Key limes are grown in Mexico and most of Latin America and are the limones used in Margaritas, Pisco Sours and other Latin American cocktails.
While there are many recipes for Key Lime Pie and many shops in Florida that claim to make the best, there is a general consensus that the filling is made with Key lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and egg yolks (adding green food coloring is considered blasphemous to devotees). You might think that chefs and “real” cooks would use fresh cream instead of canned milk, but the original versions of the pie do not. Sweetened condensed milk was invented in 1856 by Gail Borden (as in Borden’s Dairy Products) as a way to preserve milk and deliver nutrition around the world. (Remember there was no refrigeration in those days.) Sweetened condensed milk arrived in Florida and the Keys almost as soon as it was invented. The canned, condensed milk is the only way to get the silky-smooth texture of a good Key lime pie.
It is thought that fisherman working off the Keys were the first to combine the condensed milk with the abundant limes and the eggs they had on their boats, but no one knows for sure. Legend has it that Aunt Sally invented the pie, but no one knows who Aunt Sally was.
While there is not much debate over how to make the filling, arguments break out about the crust (pastry? Graham cracker? Other?) and the topping (meringue? whipped cream?). I have had excellent versions of all the variations, though my personal favorites have a graham cracker crust and whipped cream. Here is a clever, and excellent, recipe I have used that features a good photograph showing the difference between a Key lime and a Persian lime.
Baked Alaska is made using a cake, ice cream, and meringue. The ice cream is mounded on the cake, then the whole thing is covered with a thick coating of meringue and quickly baked in a hot oven. The cake and meringue insulate the ice cream so it does not melt while the meringue browns. Here is a 5-minute video that gives a good demonstration of the basic technique.
There is a lot of room to play with this recipe. You can make your own cake or buy one. Sponge cake, pound cake, angel food cake and even cookies can be used as the base. It’s up to you to mix and match your favorite flavors of ice cream, sorbet or gelato in the middle. In the video, a French Meringue is used, i.e., egg whites are whipped to soft peaks, then sugar is beaten in to stabilize the meringue. The slightly more complicated Italian Meringue is often used, but that requires cooking sugar and water to about 240ºF (115ºC) and whipping the hot liquid into the whipped egg whites. That makes a more stable, smoother textured meringue but obviously requires somewhat more advanced kitchen skills. However you decide to combine the variables, it’s pretty spectacular to pull a dessert out of the oven and have your guests cut into ice-cold ice cream. To impress them even more, put a couple tablespoons of vodka or rum on top when you pull it out of the oven and light it with a match to get a flaming version.
MJ’s married these two idea, using the Key lime pie as the base, putting on a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and baking the meringue on top. The sweet ice cream cuts the natural tartness of the Key lime finding beautifully.
Next, Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie, with a pretzel crust, concord grape sauce and malted vanilla gelato.
I mean, what’s not to like? Peanut butter cup meets PB&J (peanut butter and jelly sandwich) meets ice cream.
Finally (this had to end sometime!), Mascarpone Cheesecake with Greek Yogurt Sorbet and Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam.
It’s got fruit and yogurt, so it’s healthy, right? Well, maybe not exactly diet food, but the cheesecake was relatively light and the sorbet packed significantly fewer calories than good ice cream wood so, in the overall scheme off things, it was at least light-er. Tons of flavor, though, from the fruit, the Mascarpone cheese and the tart-sweet yogurt sorbet.
All three of these desserts were modest sized and could reasonably be eaten by one person—especially if that person is a teenage boy. They are perfect for a couple to share.
We did not order the signature dessert at MJ’s this time. That’s the 23-layer Chocolate Cake (MJ was number 23 when he played for the Chicago Bulls.) Here is a picture from a previous visit
Yes, there are 23 layers and yes, it is as chocolatey good as it looks.
As I said at the beginning of this blog, there are lots of good steakhouses in Chicago and there is probably one close to you wherever you may be staying in the city. Everyone finds their own favorite, but I can certainly recommend that you give Michael Jordan’s a try. For some people, that fact MJ is an owner, may show up sometime and there is some MJ memorabilia are good enough reasons to go. That’s all cool, but not enough for me. I go back for the food and, while I have not mentioned it, the service is almost always excellent, too.
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 a Canon 5D Mark III camera and a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens. 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.