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The smoked meat board at SideDoor

Raising the Steaks

by Lisa Shames | Photo by Potluck Creative | Men's Book Chicago magazine | May 28, 2014

With some of the country’s most exciting restaurants calling Chicago home, our reputation as a meat-and-potatoes town is history. But that doesn’t mean we’ve outgrown our love for a great steak or, for that matter, a great steakhouse. These days, though, restaurateurs are taking traditional meat markets of the past and adding unprecedented creative twists. The result? Carnivores again have plenty to smile about in sweet home Chicago.

When the group behind RPM Italian was looking for inspiration for their next restaurant, they didn’t have to go far. “We’ve gotten such great response from our steaks at RPM Italian,” says chef Doug Psaltis, who collaborated on the hot River North restaurant with R.J. and Jerrod Melman, Bill and Giuliana Rancic, and mixologist Paul McGee. That revelation led to the creation of RPM Steak (60 W. Kinzie St.), scheduled to open in June.

At the restaurant, also located in River North, expect to find nods here and there to classic steakhouses, as well as “things that are more fresh and fun,” says Psaltis, who plans on featuring not only a variety of meat cuts, ranging from Japanese Kobe to American wagyu, but different types of cooking techniques. He’s particularly excited about getting his hands on the restaurant’s Josper, a unique charcoal broiler/oven that delivers a well-charred yet juicy steak.

Innovative cooking techniques and protein-focused dishes also will be at the heart of River Roast (315 N. LaSalle St., 312.822.0100) when it opens this summer in the former Fulton’s on the River space. For his first non-Italian restaurant, Spiaggia’s Tony Mantuano and longtime friend chef John Hogan (Keefer’s) will concentrate on three items: slow-roasted top sirloins crisped in a brick oven; whole fish cooked in a tandoor oven; and chickens roasted to order and carved tableside over a bed of french fries. For the poultry, Mantuano has brought in a new oven that combines dry heat with steam, cooking “chicken like you’ve never tasted before,” he says. Those searching for dainty portions should look elsewhere. “River Roast isn’t about small plates,” says Mantuano. “It’s about the return of dinner.”

Roasted meats also come into play at SideDoor (100 E. Ontario St., 312.787.6768), the hipper, younger sibling to neighboring white-tablecloth Lawry’s. Looking for a way to put 3,000 square feet of empty space to good use while still staying true to their roots, the Lawry’s team came up with the idea of a gastropub. “We’re not doing foams or other molecular gastronomy things,” says chef Vic Newgren. “We are a roasted-meat emporium.”

Featuring a variety of shareable plates ranging from house-smoked pastrami to seared seafood salad, along with an inventive cocktail list, SideDoor is attracting a younger generation of diners. The menu star by a mile is the roasted meat board. Served family-style, the wood plank comes topped with slices of assorted seasonal meats, such as leg of lamb, juicy turkey breast and tender roasted prime rib from Lawry’s. Rabbit, pork shoulder and spare ribs are slated to make appearances soon.

If unusual meat is what you’re hunting for, then Frontier (1072 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773.772.4322) is the place to go. At the rustic spot, chef Brian Jupiter has become well known for his menu that reads like a check-off list on Noah’s Ark: goat, bison, duck, alligator, alpaca, venison, wild boar, elk and more. His Animal Service menu section, which requires a minimum three-day notice and includes whole or large portions of animals sourced locally (suckling pig, anyone?), has become legendary.

For Giuseppe Tentori, opening a meat-focused restaurant was a no-brainer. “I’m a huge steak-and-potato kind of guy,” says the Italian native, whose work at GT Fish & Oyster, Boka and Charlie Trotter’s might lead one to think otherwise.

At GT Prime, scheduled to open in River North this fall, Tentori wants to shake up the traditional steakhouse concept. Complementing the appetizer-heavy menu will be a wide range of different meat cuts served sliced in small portions. “It won’t just be a big hunk of steak on your plate,” says Tentori. Unusual cuts, such as heart or tripe, will have their place too, with an offal of the week offering.

Odd bits of meat are nothing new to chef Kevin Hickey, who, 10 or so years ago, started sneaking them into dishes with more traditional cuts. Now, he’s happy to report, “Customers have become widely more adventurous.” That’s something he’s seeing firsthand at Bottlefork (441 N. Clark St., 312.955.1900), the River North restaurant from Rockit Ranch Productions, where his smoked lamb ribs and popcorn sweetbreads are the top sellers. “People want to try something different than what they’ve had before,” he says.

Providing diners with something different is a topic chef Rick Gresh of David Burke’s Primehouse (616 N. Rush St., 312.660.6000) knows well. When the downtown steakhouse opened in 2006, its dry-aged steaks, aged in its on-site salt room, were a rarity. Years later, Gresh still pushes the envelope, experimenting with dry-aging on a variety of ingredients, including butter, chocolate and even fish. Up soon: a 1-year-aged steak.

When it opens in 2015, Prime & Provisions (222 N. LaSalle St.) also will include a dry-aging room, which will be visible to diners. “We think dry-aging creates a superior product and gives meat its own unique flavor,” says David Rekhson, who, along with Lucas Stoioff, is behind the project. The pair has found success with such hot spots as Siena Tavern, Public House and Bull & Bear.

Located in a downtown office building, the 12,000-square-foot Prime & Provisions will incorporate fundamentals that people expect to find at a steakhouse, as well as some of the edginess and high energy for which the duo is known. Even with 250 seats to fill, plus another 40 outside, Stoioff feels confident the timing is right. “You can never underestimate the American palate for good old-fashioned comfort food,” he says. “And what’s more comfortable and approachable than a nice piece of steak, a salad, some side dishes and a great glass of wine?” We couldn’t agree more.