TO FIND THE 50th international branch of Morton's of Chicago, the Steakhouse, you drive past the Levi's Store and Tiffany's and Planet Hollywood and pull over beside the single door with the $7 valet sign. You descend a long flight of stairs and emerge in a dim lobby where Bob Eubanks and Tara Lipinski, or people who look very much like them, bare their teeth in greeting. Tara is hugging her shoulders in something very strappy and sheer; you wish you had an extra sweater for the girl, it being March. You walk through a cloud of blue cigar smoke on your way past the bar. Morton's of Chicago, the Steakhouse
1511 Sixth, 223-0550
Mon-Sat 5:30-11:30pm, Sun 5-10pm AE, DC, MC, V; full bar Bob Eubanks is dying to engage you in conversation. "Almost all of the Morton's throughout the world are in basements," he tells you over his shoulder. "Basement says clubby. It says exclusive." On the way to your table you walk past dozens of magnums of red wine, baskets of baker potatoes, sheaves of asparagus. The potatoes are the size of small watermelons, the asparagus stalks fat as a baby's forearm. The enormous bouquet beside your table looks pretty darn realistic. Your waiter approaches to tell you his name and the name of his partner. You look confused. He explains that each table gets two waiters. At Morton's, you don't order off a menu; one of your waiters brings around a cart laden with all the available cuts of meat, raw. This turns out to be a helpful tutorial. You learn that all the beef ($27.95-$66) is USDA prime, wet-aged, grain-fed, Midwest-raised. You learn that New York is the most flavorful; ribeye the most marbled; filet mignon the tenderest. You order your vegetables ($3.25-$8.95) and potatoes ($4.95) ࠬa carte. You do the math and all the blood drains from your face. You regard your appetizers. A plate of Bluepoint oysters on the half-shell ($10.95) features seven of the little beauties on ice; they are mild and lightly briny. Slices of beefsteak tomato large as saucers arrive smothered in a creamy blue cheese dressing ($6.95); you are as fascinated by the simplicity of this salad as by the sheer weight of sauce each muscular slice can hold. The Morton's salad ($6.95) is similarly swamped, but this time offendingly so—lettuce and eggs and anchovies reportedly also reside here, but the dressing obliterates them completely. This it does, astonishingly, without benefit of blue cheese flavor. You wish your lobster bisque ($10.95) tasted more like lobster and less like butter. You wish it had not arrived tepid. You wish that the crab in your jumbo lump crabmeat appetizer ($11.95) were the sweet, delicate Dungeness instead of the dense, dull Indonesian, but you dredge it through its accompanying aioli anyway and it makes you happy enough. You try your best to ignore your arteries, which began begging for mercy during the salad dressing; you are, after all, still on your starters. You take a penitent bite of spinach salad ($6.95) and find it drenched in sweet and sour dressing and loaded with bacon. A couple of starters manage subtlety, and you try to corner these as unobtrusively as possible. The Shrimp Alexander ($11.95) features lovely flavor, the shrimp marinated and grilled through, and with a fine springy texture. Sea scallops, broiled and wrapped in bacon ($10.95), are delicious and presented with minimalist restraint alongside tart apricot chutney. Subtlety! Minimalist restraint! Alas, brave carnivore: This will be the last of these you'll encounter all evening. DON'T MISUNDERSTAND: It's not that the steaks are bad. On the contrary, meat eaters will be delighted by the attention, even reverence, accorded the noble bovine at Morton's. If you order a Porterhouse ($32.95), it will be cooked just as red as you requested it, fully flavorful, and tender as you please. If 24 ounces just aren't enough, you can jump that up to the manly 48-ounce portion ($66). If you arrive early enough to have the kitchen reserve one of the evening's prime rib end-cuts ($29.95), which sometimes sell out before the restaurant opens for the evening, you will likely be transported by the experience. It's just that you'd better really love the meat, because it's asked to carry the show. OK, that's not entirely true: A swordfish filet ($26.95) was respectfully handled and satisfying, as was a tender hunk of Atlantic salmon ($22.95). A person could be quite pleasantly surprised ordering fish at Morton's. A few side orders shone, like the Lyonnaise potatoes ($4.95), slices fried with onions in bacon grease, and the saut饤 wild mushrooms ($8.95), savory and pungent. More often than not, however, your side dishes are neglected entirely. They're treated as if volume were enough. Your asparagus ($6.95) is too fat to be good. Your broccoli ($4.95) has gone entirely to rubber. Both are served with little side dishes of Hollandaise, probably to butter over the flaws. Your mashed potatoes ($4.95) are a huge stiff snowdrift of starch, not nearly creamy enough. Your hash browns ($4.95) are way too greasy. Curiously, the hash browns are the only side order billed as serving two. All the sides could serve two, at least. And the Chicken Christopher ($19.95) could serve three, its trio of breaded breasts in beurre blanc rich and unexpectedly filling. Big and buttery: These two words describe nearly all the food you'll encounter at Morton's. As it happens, they also pretty well describe Tara and Bob and the rest of their confreres, who hover and fawn so unctuously, so relentlessly, you can only guess such service must be part of the Morton's playbook. That's just it—everything here feels scripted by corporate, from the windowless basement location to the utter absence of local foodstuffs to the big-bucks wine list to the ridiculously outsized prices in general. Sitting in Morton's Seattle location alongside all the unwitting tourists and cigar-sucking fat cats, you could as easily be in Morton's Kansas City location or Morton's Singapore. Perhaps this kind of corporate consistency is a plus to somebody; that would explain Sixth Avenue. It is not a plus to me. New York cheesecakes are, needless to say, flown in weekly from the Bronx; at the risk of seeming to contradict the whole last paragraph I will say that you must order a slice ($6.50). Big, yes; buttery, yes; and creamy halfway to heaven. Likewise the chocolate souffl頦or two ($12), which is served alongside a scoop of delectable sabayon, and the chocolate Godiva cake ($8.75), which is all crusty-brownielike on the outside melting to a pool of molten Godiva chocolate within. Absolutely unmissable.