The ribeye at Boeufhaus in Chicago, dry-aged for 55 days and weighing in at 22 ounces, arrived carved into thick tiles with crimson centers. The slices toppled neatly over one another like fallen dominoes, the last beefy brick leaning against the bone from which the meat had been cleaved. Devouring it fulfilled every desire a diner could have for this cut of beef and this length of aging — tang, funk, tender-tautness, fatty profundity — and my table of three fell into a focused, contented silence. Between meaty bites, we snatched up fries cooked in beef tallow and shook our heads helplessly at the narcotic richness of a cauliflower gratin. We had fallen deep into the steakhouse pleasure zone.
The scene around us, though, didn't square with classical notions of cow palace luxury. No white tablecloths or servers in black bowties. No plush, tufted banquettes or sedan-size booths. None of the usual intimations of money and power whirling through the air like cigar smoke. Instead, the space brought to mind a tiny pub on a European side street. Lined with russet-colored brick on one side and a bar built of mixed woods on the other, the room at Boeufhaus seats only 34. Like the trappings, the cuisine at Boeufhaus defies steakhouse convention. Chef-owners Brian Ahern and Jamie Finnegan nail the quintessential chophouse meal: beef tartare and chilled seafood to begin, baller steaks and hedonistic sides, comforting excesses for dessert.
Steakhouses are all haute chameleons, and we never tire of marveling at their adaptive colorings.
I had been in Chicago for nearly a week by the time I ate there, a week spent pounding down red meat and refined carbs at top-tier chophouses night after night. Steakhouses aren't hard to suss out in this city: Nearly 50 compete for conventioneer dollars in the Downtown area alone, and at least a dozen new ones have opened citywide in the last two years. And among the newcomers are three — including Boeufhaus — that, in their unique balance of nostalgia and modernity and individuality, made me walk out the door thinking I'd just experienced the next triumphant evolutions of the American steakhouse.
At once innately codified and infinitely adaptable, a posh steakhouse is where we go on those occasions when we proclaim: Fuck it, we're going all in. All in on the expense, all in on the calories, all in on the celebration. Revelry has been part of the genre ever since it originated in New York in the mid-1800s, at restaurants known as "beefsteaks" where men sat in rowdy halls consuming as much red meat and beer as they could hold. By late in the century, now-institutions like Manhattan treasure Keen's (which opened in 1885) and Peter Luger in Brooklyn (1887) offered slightly more genial surroundings, eventually adding menu items that became permanent sidekicks to porterhouses and mutton chops: shrimp cocktail, fried or baked potatoes, creamed spinach.
As the steakhouse genus spread across the country and prevailed through the decades, it managed to stay relevant through a state of perpetual metamorphosis. Its straightforward blueprint makes it the ideal foil for constant reinvention — a perfect trait for an archetypical style of American dining. The format rolls with the trends and the times. Steakhouses can adapt to the guises of elegant supper clubs, corporate boardrooms, and sleek dens of vice. They succeed as eccentric independents like Bern's in Tampa, as high-end chains, and as vanity projects for celebrity chefs. European and South American flavors weave into the basic menu template seamlessly. (And so do nineties-esque, wasabi-everything fusion conceits.) One or another may differentiate itself with the sumptuousness of its decor, or the depth of its wine cellar, or the pedigreed source of the beef it serves — steakhouses are all haute chameleons, and we never tire of marveling at their adaptive colorings.
Great steakhouses flourish in every corner of the nation, but Chicago just happens to have more of the wonderful ones right now. I don't say this to dredge up regressive tropes about the Windy City being a "meat and potatoes town." It's the third largest city in the United States, with a metro-area population of 9.5 million — of course its culinary character can't be reduced to a single class of restaurant. But the business of beef does have undeniable civic resonance here. Those sirloins that New Yorkers were gorging themselves on a century ago? Most of them rolled into town by way of Chicago, where livestock arrived from the Midwest hinterlands (and the city's own stockyards, which closed in the 1970s) and, after processing in the infamous slaughterhouses, continued on by rail to the East Coast.
History substantiates Chicago's penchant for beef, and the city's 50 million annual visitors help sustain its dozens (hundreds?) of steakhouses — always a tourist favorite. But what explains the genre's most recent evolution and excellence is the present-day makeup of the city, which in the last dozen years has blossomed into one of the country's most progressive and competitive dining scenes. The city supports provocative game-changers like Alinea, Grace, Parachute, Fat Rice, and El Ideas, to name but a handful, and the entrepreneurial gumption and unbridled imagination that animates that pioneering breed of restaurant was bound to influence the city's ingrained steakhouse culture eventually.
It's happening now. Chicago's three most galvanizing steakhouses all opened in the last year. Each take diners on joy rides of prime beef, but it's how they distinctively orchestrate the experience around that killer steak that makes the whole endeavor feel fresh and vital.
Boeufhaus's next-level specialness stems from that small-dining-room air of intimacy. Its building, formerly a butcher shop, sits on the edge of two residential neighborhoods, Humboldt Park and Ukrainian Village, several miles west of the tourist centers of the Loop and the Gold Coast. In its low-key snugness, it's really the anti-steakhouse, a place I would bring friends who relish a righteous steak dinner, but don't go in for the machismo and pageantry of more prototypical chophouses.
Owners Ahern and Finnegan don't even really embrace the term "steakhouse." Their restaurant name is a portmanteau of French (boeuf) and German (haus) that translates as "beef house," but they prefer to think of their enterprise as a brasserie. They'll point to entrees beyond steaks that incorporate the Alsatian flavors that fascinate them (seared duck breast served over sauerkraut with lardons and potatoes, for example), and also the neighborly vibe.
It's a place I would bring friends who relish a righteous steak dinner, but don’t go in for the machismo and pageantry of more prototypical chophouses.
But considering the kitchen's mastery with beef-focused indulgences, you'd be hard-pressed to qualify it as anything other than a steakhouse. The kitchen cooks steaks in cast-iron skillets, rather than the broilers or grills favored by most high-volume chophouses, a method that imparts a uniform char to that phenomenal ribeye, as well as a gutsy 25-ounce, bone-in New York strip. Yet they also divert their menu in other compelling directions far from the traditional lexicon, parading novel mash-ups like merguez over a jumble of crisp fried chickpeas and supple cavatelli, and a swirl of creamy polenta absorbing a briny, garlicky jolt from a "tapenade" in which minced escargots winningly replaced olives.
Boeufhaus makes a convincing case that a steakhouse doesn't need the traditional sprawling quarters or narrow menu to define its nature. It points to a more personal class of steakhouse that's ready to emerge, an antidote to the soulless behemoths where too often everyone but the biggest spenders could feel, ironically, like herded cattle.
Not that a behemoth operation automatically equals impersonal service. Engaging hospitality is the secret behind Swift & Sons, a showboat of retro Continental splendor opened last fall by the Boka Restaurant Group in a fitting new seat of power: a building called 1K Fulton, the rehabbed address that now houses Google's Midwestern headquarters. Residing in the Fulton Market District in the West Loop, once the center of Chicago's meatpacking industry, the building formerly housed cold storage; developers had to literally defrost the space before they could begin reconstruction.
After the thaw, a gleaming ode to Midcentury Modernism emerged: ten thousand square feet of soothing curves, grainy woods, orb light fixtures (one in a side room that resembles a model of the solar system), and the occasional imposing cement pillar to honor the building's bones. To the left of the entrance is a much smaller sister seafood operation with a prominent raw bar, called (no surprise) Cold Storage.
Plunked down in Swift & Sons' roomy foyer is a long, stately desk manned by a concierge whose job is to arrange special requests (personalized flower arrangements for an anniversary, say) and also to assist diners in making the most of their evenings — perhaps help score last-minute tickets to the theatre or a concert, or plot after-dinner drinks at a swank bar, or brainstorm brunching options for the next day. The position reminds me of the Dreamweavers employed at New York's Eleven Madison Park, whose full-time responsibility is to research and deploy ways to unusually thrill the restaurant's clientele.
Coming face-to-face with a concierge as you enter is a quick way to receive the restaurant's intention to exceed service expectations, and the polish of the dining room staff sees the promise through. Not long after you sit, a handsome wooden cart rigged with brass rails and lined with fluted bottles may trundle by. Bartender Randy Baker roams the dining room, chatting ebulliently with guests while he mixes gin and whiskey cocktails using copper-plated swizzle sticks. I'm a pushover for suave tableside service, a relic of Continental dining that is seeing a resurgence this decade as a flourish of dining-room showmanship.
A posh steakhouse is where we go on those occasions when we proclaim: Fuck it, we’re going all in.
There's no maître d'hôtel flambéing steak Diane here at Swift & Sons, but the restaurant's carts do add panache to the steakhouse template, particularly when a server wheels up the Beef Wellington for two. The dish may more readily conjure 1950s dinner parties than swank steakhouses, but the kitchen's precise execution gives the old saw new life. Tenderloin stays rosy under its layers of crisp-tender pastry, and the deft addition of spinach lightens the duxelles filling of mushroom and foie gras.
At the end of my meal — a lineup of classics, punctuated with appealingly seasonal dishes like English pea cappelletti and foie gras torchon with a strawberry-rhubarb puree — the dapper carts returned twofold. One trolley bore treats like chocolate macarons and caramels to tempt as lighter desserts, and the other had Baker behind it, stopping by to offer a tableside cocktail to match with sweets. I'd passed on a martini on his first go-around earlier in the evening, but happily gave in to a scotch-based Bobby Burns variation with orange; he suggested the hint of citrus would complement pastry chef Meg Galus's lilting, weightless take on Boston cream pie. He nailed the pairing, which added a final grace note to the most consistent and debonair display of welcome I've ever experienced in a steakhouse. If I hadn't polished off my drink, I'd have asked the concierge to help me book a last-minute cocktail tasting menu at the Aviary across the street.
If Swift & Sons envelops the steakhouse in a sumptuousness worthy of an ultra-plush cruise line, Maple & Ash reimagines the chophouse as raucous nightclub — one that puts some major talent on display nightly. Check in at the door for dinner and a hostess will lead you through the first floor bar whose trappings recall yesteryear's steakhouses, with roomy booths upholstered in black leather and framed black-and-white pictures of revelers clad in tuxedoes and cocktail dresses. The real action, though, is upstairs. Ascend one floor in an elevator and step out directly into a party.
Walk into the restaurant's cavernous dining room, and you're engulfed in a roar of voices and clatter. In the center of the space, purple metallic organza floats in gauzy strips like a shredded gown, and a chandelier of beaded lights hangs like a double-stranded string of pearls. Such a riotous backdrop could easily serve as a useful distraction to camouflage mediocre cooking. But principal owners Jim Lasky and David Pisor have instead assembled an A-list of industry pros, a team that's embraced the steakhouse motif with unfettered playfulness.
Executive chef Danny Grant earned two Michelin Stars at Ria, the restaurant in Chicago's sumptuous Elysian Hotel (now the Waldorf Astoria Chicago; Pisor originally developed the property). He oversees a 12-foot hearth that breathes fire over rows of steaks, as well as a coal-burning oven that produces the kitchen's greatest stroke of genius: a seafood tower of roasted shrimp, oysters, lobster, Alaskan King Crab legs, and other oceanic treasures, kissing the shellfish with smoke and concentrating their flavors.
The Maple & Ash supergroup is on site, night after night. They aren’t distant overlords; they’re on the line, pouring wine, shaking drinks, greeting customers.
In Grant's hands, other chophouse classics receive similar sly tweaks. Beef tartare comes with smoked egg yolk, which cleverly foreshadows the campfire perfume of the steaks. Shrimp de Jonghe, coated in garlicky, sherry-scented breadcrumbs, is a staple appetizer in Chicago steakhouses; local hoteliers developed the recipe a century ago. The dish can often be a thud of muddy flavors, but Grant is spare with the breading, and the sherry comes through bright and warm. It shows off his affectionate approach to steakhouse cooking: He respects the form but personalizes dishes with flavors and techniques that embody this moment in American dining.
The ebullient Belinda Chang heads the beverage program — on her watch, The Modern in New York won a James Beard award for wine service in 2011. Maple & Ash's wine list is Chang's vino manifesto, a 31-page document that soars to a $4,700 magnum of Champagne and swings down to earth with a roster of standouts priced at $50 and under. Chang's program is in constant evolution — a choose-your-own-wine-adventure flowchart is in the works — and she leads the kind of team to whom you can lob a few adjectives about what you prefer to drink and rest assured that soon something exhilarating will flow into your stemware.
In March, five months after opening, ace pastry chef Aya Fukai joined the Maple and Ash crew, following a stint at high-flying Sixteen in the Trump Hotel Chicago, and she brings a wisely eased-up approach to the richness of classic steakhouse desserts. Her sweets — cream puffs with raspberry sorbet and pistachio streusel, a giant carrot cake macaron with pecan buttercream and orange sherbet — sound extravagant, but land softly on both the palate and the stomach.
The newest addition to the team is Adam Seger, a rock star bartender who once worked alongside Chang at Chicago's legendary Tru. He's currently tweaking several versions of boozy snow cones that will cool the crowds on the restaurant's 60-seat patio this summer.
Has this caliber of combined talent ever before been recruited to run a steakhouse? It's doubtful. Chef-entrepreneurs like Wolfgang Puck and Tom Colicchio may have their names attached to steakhouses, but they aren't personally in the restaurants running the show. But the Maple & Ash supergroup is on site, night after night. They aren't distant overlords; they're on the line, pouring wine, shaking drinks, greeting customers. And their collective absorption in the details translates to an exuberant experience for the guest.
Putting together this culinary equivalent of the Justice League was also the smartest possible way for Maple & Ash to distinguish itself in the culinary battle zone of its market. It resides in the affluent, aptly named Gold Coast, not far from some of Chicago's steakhouse icons. The original Morton's is nearby, and so is the 27-year-old Gibsons Bar and Steakhouse — the highest grossing independent restaurant in Chicago, it pulled in $22.5 million last year.
Maple & Ash, slammed every night, has youth on its side, but the attraction goes beyond its newness. It's the spot-on customization of the template, a contemporary grandeur with the right boldness and the right staff. This may America's most cutthroat steakhouse neighborhood, but if the formula works, there always seems to be room for another to prosper. This is the profound appetite for prime beef that Chicago stokes. The city encourages a natural process of chophouse transformation — the intimacy of Boeufhaus, the retro-modern glam of Swift & Sons, the talent-driven ethos of Maple & Ash — while still championing stalwarts that have been around for decades. Chicago isn't just a steakhouse town. It's a steakhouse community.