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STEAK OUT Bone-in Cowgirl steak from Maple & Ash

The Meat Goes On

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | March 4, 2016

These are tough times for cattle in Chicago. A herd of recent steakhouse openings—ranging from a modern update on the classic formula (Prime & Provisions) and an off-the-beaten-path indie (Boeufhaus) to one with an Argentine slant (Rural Society)—offers a lengthy list of meaty goodness. (Steak-knife purveyors, on the other hand, are having a field day.) And the trend shows no signs of slowing down; witness two new stars.

At Swift & Sons, chef Chris Pandel, along with his Boka Restaurant Group and B. Hospitality Co. partners, isn’t reinventing the wheel. “We’re just trying to elevate the steakhouse experience,” he says. With his French culinary background and meat expertise—he’s often credited with spearheading the now ubiquitious nose-to-tail dining trend here back when he was butchering in-house at The Bristol—Pandel’s just the guy to pull that off.

It doesn’t hurt that the West Loop restaurant is gorgeous. The multilevel space created by hotshot design group AvroKO (Momotaro) is decked out with arched ceilings, rich woods and curved brown leather booths. The modern midcentury vibe also applies to the more casual bar area, which is a great spot to grab a burger ($15) and an expertly made dirty martini ($13).

There’s plenty of eye candy to be found on the plates too. The ricotta dumpling appetizer ($14) comes topped with rings of crispy Delicata squash. Pomegranate seeds add a splash of color and acidity to the velvety gnudi. Salmon tartare ($15) gets an elegant upgrade with the addition of a thin layer of poppy-seed sour cream spread over the disk of chopped raw salmon. The chilled neon-green cucumber-and-lime broth poured tableside is a nice touch, as is the housemade cracker from Pastry Chef Meg Galus, which serves as a tasty heads- up to save room for her desserts.

Even the pan-roasted chicken entree ($29), often a throwaway dish at meat markets, gets gussied up at Swift & Sons. The crispy-skinned half-bird sits on top of a ragout of braised drumstick meat, bacon lardons, knob onions and rich chicken jus.

But, lest we forget, this is a steakhouse, and you’d be remiss to skip the Prime Steaks section of the menu. The 12 offerings range from a wonderful steak frites ($28)—the skirt steak is tender and full of flavor, while the skin-on fries are perfect—to an A5 Japanese wagyu strip loin ($100). In between, there’s a 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye ($65) that the meathead at my table described as “bone-gnawingly delicious,” even better when he paired it with a bone-marrow add-on.

Galus’ desserts take a similarly elevated approach to the classics, including her deconstructed version of a Boston cream pie ($9) in which all the traditional flavors are represented (vanilla cream, chocolate and yellow sponge cake), but plated beautifully with flecks of gold.

Not far away in the Gold Coast is Maple & Ash, which opened the same time as Swift & Sons. The second-floor dining room designed by Studio K’s Karen Herold is sexy without going over the top. There’s a jewelry-inspired chandelier hanging from the high ceiling in the indoor courtyard, which is surrounded by sheer curtains. Candelabra sit on the white tablecloth-topped tables. In the lounge, low jewel-toned couches and chairs encourage guests to sit closer, while the velvet bar stools provide a comfortable spot for those without a coveted dinner reservation.

Like S&S, there’s a lot of star power here. Chef Danny Grant (NoMI, Elysian) can be seen in the open kitchen overseeing the 12-foot wood- and coal-burning hearth, which he puts to good use for many menu items. James Beard Award-winning sommelier Belinda Chang, whose wine list is full of terrific under-the-radar offerings, including Serge Faust Carte d’Or Brut NV Champagne ($24 by the glass), is a constant fixture in the dining room and is both eager and expert with suggestions.

If the let’s-party ambience isn’t evident from the restaurant’s decor, then the gratis mini martini served while you peruse the menu should clear things up. Still not convinced? Perhaps items such as the I Don’t Give a F*@K, a chef’s tasting menu of sorts ($145), and steak add-ons dubbed Arm Candy will.

While Maple & Ash wants diners to have fun, it takes its food seriously. For his version of salmon tartare ($15), Grant skews more delicate with a smoked creme fraiche accompanying the mound of raw fish. A sous vide-cooked egg yolk adds a wonderful creaminess to the chunky pieces of tenderloin in the generous portion of steak tartare ($16). And who would’ve thought iceberg, the Rodney Dangerfield of the lettuce world, would be a major player in my new favorite salad, the terrific Wedge ($14), served here?

But perhaps the biggest eye-opener comes via the seafood tower (Semi-Pro $95, Baller $145). Instead of serving it chilled, Grant gives lobster, oysters, Alaskan king crab legs, scallops, Peruvian prawns and whatever else is fresh that day a quick session in the hearth, which imparts a delicate smokiness and warmth to all of them. Even the chiles in the oil topping the oysters have spent time in that hearth.

The steaks also benefit from face time with the hearth, including a wonderfully juicy New York strip ($44). The crust topping The Volcano ($29), a glorious short-rib bourguignon pot pie complete with an edible marrow bone decoration, gets some added flavor from the smoked beef fat used to make it.

For dessert, the popular way to go is the Sundae Service ($19), bowls of housemade ice cream accompanied by a silver tiered tray, loaded with all the toppings you could want.

If these two restaurants don’t fit the stereotype of a Chicago steakhouse, that’s actually the point. “We don’t think of it as a steakhouse,” says Chang of Maple & Ash. “It’s just a really good restaurant.” We couldn’t agree more.

MAPLE & ASH
8 W. Maple St., 312.944.8888
Open for dinner nightly

SWIFT & SONS
1000 W. Fulton Market, 312.733.9420
Open for dinner nightly