We donâ€™t want nobody that nobody sent.
Thatâ€™s allegedly what a cigar-chomping Chicago political boss told future congressman Abner Mikva when he tried to get his start in local politics by volunteering, unbidden, for Adlai Stevensonâ€™s presidential campaign in 1951. Â Walk into a classic Chicago steakhouse today and youâ€™re likely to get the same message. Try scoring a prime table at Gibsons on a Friday night without dropping a $4,000 tip like Johnny Depp did last July. Donâ€™t even think about sitting in the bar level at Gene & Georgetti if you donâ€™t have an official government business parking pass. Heck, even if you have reservations, the clipboard toting maÃ®tre dâ€™ will likely make you sweat it out for 30 minutes before you get a table.
Sure, Frank Sinatraâ€™s butt cheeks may have made their imprint on that burnished banquette long before you were born, but Olâ€™ Blue Eyes and the like made things worse for the common man. Steakhouse owners drunk on celebrity lore have treated ages of diners to gruff service. Once a monument to elegance and celebration, the local Chicago steakhouse has become a dusty diorama of nostalgia.
As such, I was excited when Mastroâ€™s, a West Coast steakhouse chain founded in Scottsdale, Arizona, announced that it was taking over the former Blue Water Grill space on Dearborn. As a Chicago writer, Iâ€™m predisposed to hating carpet-bagging mini franchisesâ€”but when the locals abdicate their responsibility, they deserve a little competition. Â Itâ€™s only when I arrive in the wood-paneled, marble-floored lobby of Mastroâ€™s that I get worried. I spot a framed photo of a smug gray-haired man sporting a fist-sized Windsor knot and toasting the foyer with what looks like a quadruple Martini.
Nothing says â€œyour grandpaâ€™s steakhouseâ€ like a mini-billboard of the 1970s ideal of an oil tycoon. (This turns out to be the founder, Dominic Mastro.) Â But, my reservation is honored immediately, and I settle into a comfy, modern leather wingback chair. Bathed in the glow from a miniature table lamp, I realize the piano man in the lounge is singing a jazzy cover of the Ramones â€œI Wanna Be Sedated.â€ Mastroâ€™s is likely not even my fatherâ€™s steakhouse.
The champagne-colored draperies are so lush that even from 10 feet away I feel swaddled in their majesty. The walls are lined with an abundance of mirrors and glinting beads that shimmer like a silvery curtain. This softness is tempered with tufted dark leather banquettes and a regal red and gold carpeting so evocative of classic masculinity I can almost whiff the Old Spice. The interior design is like a mash-up of George Clooney and Brad Pitt, simultaneously pretty and rugged. In Mastroâ€™s, we have the first metrosexual steakhouse of Chicago.
Though, there arenâ€™t any celebrities in the house tonightâ€”just suburban dads in cashmere V-neck sweaters and their sons, draped in Abercrombie flannel. Â Our food runner brings water immediately. With his natty white waistcoat, shaved head and frowning Fu Manchu moustache, he looks like a villain straight out of central casting for a James Bond flick. Before he can call in the mechanical octopi to eat us, our waitress, a cheerful Terms of Endearment-era Debra Winger doppelgÃ¤nger, steps in to review the nightly specials. Â She is doting, motherly, and expresses concern that our order may be too largeâ€”a 180 from the upselling going on at other local steakhouses. Â She genuinely seems distressed when she canâ€™t recall that the gratin on top of the oysters Rockefeller is a blend of Parmesan and anisette, and has to ask the kitchen for the answer. Though we barely register her return; the soft, warm oyster belly, mounded with tender threads of spinach, a hint of bacon smoke and the creamy gratin, commands most of our attention.
Food writers generally donâ€™t like steakhouses because there isnâ€™t much craft or imagination in searing a hunk of meat over flame. That being said, Mastroâ€™s captivates because it delivers solid classics like that Rockefeller. The lobster bisque, featuring a raft of cream, the heady waft of brandy and a buried treasure of succulent claws is straight out of the Larousse Gastronomique playbook.
We appreciate our serverâ€™s attention so much, we pretend not to notice when her serving tongs lose their grip, sending a perfectly pink lamb chop careening to the floor. Thereâ€™s no time to react anyway, for she delivers a sizzling replacement from the kitchen seconds later. Though there would have been enough chops to feed a hungry battalion of troops without it, Iâ€™m glad she brought another. The crust is crispy, the interior melts and the seasoning is a perfect mix of salt and smoke. This is the best cut of the night. Â The bone-in rib eye, roughly the size of a Brontosaurus, could use a touch more salt. Debra Winger pimps Mastroâ€™s seafood acumen, but I think the lady doth protest too much, as our swordfish was mushy and the Alaskan king crab black truffle gnocchi features pungent crab and scent-free winter truffles that taste bland.
I love the Parmesan-and-herb-crusted sweet potato fries, sporting crisp outsides and starchy centers, but the portion size is a solution to third-world hunger. Throughout the night, we see at least 10 orders of half-eaten bowls of fries returning to the kitchen. Our waitress tells us that tables of eight will occasionally finish a batch. Â On the other hand, weâ€™re okay with the fact that the signature butter cake is the size of a modest battleship, as no member of our group forgoes a spoonful (or five) of the hot, gooey cake, topped with oozing sour cream cheese, a crispy brÃ»lÃ©ed sugar crust and a dollop of extra-chilled ice cream.
After the rich dessert and the hefty meal, I go to bed early. Actually, I pass out from gluttony. My cell phone wakes me the next morning. Itâ€™s Mastroâ€™s hostess, inquiring about my visit the night before, a standard practice at the restaurant. As she asks if there was anything she could have done to make my experience better, I think: Hey, a nobody just became somebody.
Mastroâ€™s Rating: **
520 N. Dearborn St., 312.521.5100