Excess on occasion is moderating. It keeps moderation from becoming a habit.
--W. Somerset Maugham
Ever since we Homo sapiens reared up on our hind legs and clustered into groups, dinner has provided physical and social nourishment. Sitting down to eat, we've fed our instincts for both fuel and companionship.
Not anymore. In the 1990s, mealtime has evolved into a medical procedure, and a risky one at that. Panicked by thoughts of mortality and bombarded with insane cultural messages about food, we spend dinnertime counting every calorie, fat gram and milligram of cholesterol that passes through our lips.
These days, food is not only medically suspect, but morally suspect as well. A good meal isn't a joy to anticipate; it's a temptation to overcome. And like medieval Christian ascetics, we take perverse pleasure in punishing ourselves when our lusts inevitably betray us. Instead of whips or hairshirts, however, we mortify the flesh with some dreadful, good-for-you dinner, with salad and a low-fat dressing on the side.
In these nutritionally correct times, old-fashioned steak houses--ancient pagan temples of red meat--are downright subversive. Ironically, though, they're incredibly popular. According to restaurant-industry analysts, people feel they "deserve" an occasional slab of beef to "reward" their otherwise piously obsessive, self-denying behavior.
And that's why the high-end steak house, which features prime beef, the most expensive grade, is the hottest part of this restaurant segment. After all, the thinking goes, if you're going to jump off the nutritional pyramid, you might as well land in the most comfortable spot.
Taking advantage of America's schizoid eating habits, Morton's:The Steakhouse and Ruth's Chris Steak House have become the two biggest national players on the top-dollar steak-house scene, slugging it out in cities across America. They each boast about the quality and preparation of their prime beef. They don't talk much about price: figure about $22 to $30 for a steak, depending on the cut. That's strictly a la carte, too: These steaks are accompanied only by a knife and fork.
Ruth's Chris had the Valley's white-linen-tablecloth steak market to itself for several years, until Morton's arrived in March. Which chain is number one? I can't give a definitive answer--I've had different experiences at these restaurants in different towns. In this town, though, I'd give the nod to Morton's.
It's a bustling place, brightly lighted, with Sinatra playing subliminally low in the background. Wine lockers near the entrance hold the stock of some of this town's heaviest hitters, like the R&G's Bill Shover and sports mogul Jerry Colangelo. There are no windows to look out, but you can fix your gaze on the LeRoy Neiman paintings lining the walls or the platinum-haired trophy wives accompanying their aging, steak-loving husbands. The tables bear three Morton's trademarks: a pewter-pig lamp, a flower-filled vase and a huge steak knife that almost requires two hands to wield.
For some odd reason, Morton's dispenses with menus. Instead, the server wheels up a cart bearing the raw ingredients of just about every dish in the house. Then he launches into a numbingly descriptive, "this is a recording" spiel that will put your entire party into a glassy-eyed stupor. Needless to say, this scripted performance gets even more tiresome on subsequent visits. My favorite part of the monologue? That's when the server, pitching the potato side dishes, dramatically hoists a whole spud in the air, just in case we haven't fully grasped the potato concept.
The appetizer list is small and pricey. At almost ten bucks, the three luscious broiled sea scallops, wrapped in bacon and teamed with a spicy apricot chutney, make a bigger dent in your wallet than in your appetite. So does the small mound of lump crabmeat. If oysters turn you on, you'll probably have to be hosed down after slurping the gorgeously briny Cockenoe oysters Morton's flies in. But don't expect much from the sliced beefsteak tomato. For $5.25, the tomato should taste like it was just plucked from a New Jersey vine in July. This one didn't.
And if you don't want to shell out for appetizers, you can make do with the crusty onion bread, a loaf of no particular distinction that creates enough crumbs to support every pigeon in North America.
But Morton's isn't about bread or appetizers. It's about beef. And the beef here is good enough to make you believe in cattle worship, although not in the traditional Hindu sense.
The kitchen isn't afraid of simplicity. With top-quality beef like this, it's a virtue. Steaks are seared on the grill, popped in a broiler and seasoned only with a bit of salt.