High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

"I have to get it: It comes with a syringe!": David Burke Primehouse

Note: I'm tired of replacing "The ZK" with "M." They are my spousal unit and one and the same.

The spousal unit and I became aware some time in November that we'd be celebrating our fourth anniversary a day early. Initially, we were slated to be on a plane to DC to meet up with The Wire Monkey Mother and her lad, as well as our friends L and N; after I'd booked the tickets, the announced that he had a final that evening. But no matter: We made reservations at Salpicón, did the tasting menu (ZOMG!), split a wine pairing (ZOMG!!!!!), the ZK got a Carl, and I got a Jesus Phone. No, life is not fair.

So why am I prefacing with something so last year? Well, I'd hoped to have this in time for our anniversary, but it was not to be. I did, however, transform the deck into a Christmas gift. Tonight, we decided to explore the deck for a restaurant that would fit in with our plan to see The Wrestler, and we hit on David Burke's Primehouse.

We were 10 minutes or so early, so it wasn't surprising that we were asked to grab a seat and a drink while we waited for our table. However, I got the sense that there were 3 or 4 parties that had had 8 PM reservations. The host seating them was gravely and profusely apologetic. I got the sense that the group of 8 or so young, entitled men who lingered loudly by the host station for no good reason on their way out had something to do with throwing off the timing of seatings.
We were at our table by 8:35 or so, though.

The dining room is not large, but the lighting and arrangement of the tables does a good job of leaving one group feeling as though they're in the lap of the group next door. Nonetheless, it is loud, and it was hard to hear both the servers and the ZK. Also—and I realize this is an odd criticism to make—there were smell issues. At one point, there was a strong smell of burned bread, and most unfortunately, after we'd finished our first courses, a couple of smokers came back to one of the tables near us, and my whole head was filled with the smell of stale cigarette smoke. The art work on the friezes is also . . . odd. We decided that it was kind of a white, cubist take on the "Good Times" mural.

We started with a manhattan for the ZK and a Cono Sur Pinot Noir for me (this never really opened up the way I'd hoped, but the Sangiovese I had with my main course was delightful). The bread arrived and solved a mystery that had begun to develop when the very large party near us began to receive what appeared to be individual soufflés. Sadly for the ZK, I incorrectly solved a second mystery regarding the bread based on some bad information.

Basically, every diner gets a stainless steel 1-cup measuring cup filled with a fantastic puff of crusty cheddar bread. This is accompanied by a slab of butter on a Burke-branded wood plank and another, smaller measuring cup filled with something granular. I was sure that the server said this was brown sugar, and thus it was dead to me in juxtaposition to bread. Having tasted the decidedly savory, cheddary delight, I wondered what kind of fiend would serve this with brown sugar. The ZK, not sharing my aversion to the mixture of sweet and savory, sprinkled his buttered bread. Those of you who are not complete yokels have probably already figured out that the granular substance was, in fact, the pinkish Himalyan salt crystals rather famously used by Burke. Oops. Delicious bread, though, and positively splendid presentation!

For our first course, the ZK had the special prosciutto salad (lovely, thin slices of granny smith apples and brilliant shavings of parmesan) and my surf and turf dumplings (the lobster dumplings were amazing; I wished the short-rib version had had a little more flavor, as I mostly tasted the admittedly tasty wrapper). The entree options, somewhat obviously, comprise steak, steak, and more steak. With my innate gift for contrariness, I was drawn to the classic filet, the waygu skirt steak (the only two items on the menu that aren't dry aged), and the wildcard, the duck breast. On the fly, I switched to the Delmonico, as I didn't think I could actually face 12 oz of something that wasn't the specialty of the house. The ZK went for the 44-day-aged ribeye. The chorizo whipped potatoes were a non-negotiable side option, but immediately after ordering the onion rings, we had regrets about not getting something green.

There was a bit of a lag between our courses, so we amused ourselves by watching the interesting presentation and table-side preparations being delivered to our neighbors. And, yes, we did take the opportunity to announce, "It's a rock. I can't wait to tell my friends. None of them has a rock this big," when the couple near us had their "Sticks & Stones" appetizer delivered (although, again, there were ensuing smell issues). We were also gratified to learn that the cart we'd been eyeing all night was, in fact, a mobile caesar-salad-making station.

As lovely as the presentation of the first courses is, the entrees were ultimately steaks on white plates and a bit stark in comparison. Mine was perfectly done, tender, and crazy flavorful. The ZK enjoyed his, but the cut on the ribeye is thick enough that to achieve medium rare, it gets pretty charred on the outside. I rather like that contrast, but he found the taste of the outer char overwhelmed the meat itself.

Dessert inspired the subject line. After spelunking around the menu a bit, the ZK decided on the Kickin' Doughnuts. I went for the special, which was a chocolate, macadamia nut cake with blood orange ice cream. (We'd have naturally tried the cake in a can if it hadn't been listed as appropriate for 4 to 6 people.) We ordered some decaf, which arrived promptly enough that mine was gone before my dessert arrived, and there was a lag before I could get a refill.

The "syringes" for the doughnuts actually turned out to be little plastic hair-dye type bottles with vanilla, caramel, and apple-ginger sauces. The caramel was the clear star, and the vanilla was good. The apple-ginger was . . . not. Granted, apple-ginger is unlikely to be my favorite, as it's almost guaranteed to have occult cinnamon in it, but it had a definite metallic taste, as though the apples had been left sitting out before the sauce was made. The doughnuts were, indeed, kickin'. As for mine, though? No complaints. The cake was a little crisp, and the chocolate and nuts blended into a really mellow, subtle flavor. It was a great contrast to the tartness of the ice cream and the dried kumquats added just a tiny bit of very pleasant bitterness.

When we handed over our a la card, it turned out that someone who works there had been the driving force behind it (or at least its Chicago incarnation). We chatted with our server about it, and she promised to pass along our feeling that it was a really neat idea.

Coming full circle to end on the cards themselves, I guess I've no one to blame but me for the fact that I assumed their dollar-sign pricing code would range from 1 to 4 (it seems to range from 1 to 3, and Primehouse is obviously at the top end). Both the ZK and I had been expecting it to be slightly less swank and less expensive than it was, because of the misunderstanding of the code.

We were talking about whether the restaurant was overpriced for what it was and came to a few conclusions: (1) It's certainly on par with places like Capital Grille and Ruth's Chris, price- and quality-wise; (2) for a steakhouse, it has more interesting appetizers, desserts, and sides than is usual, which makes us more likely both to try it again and to recommend to our meat-and-potatoes acquaintances as a means of getting them to try some more interesting things; (3) the service was very good, but the crowd seemed to lead to pacing issues (we ended up missing the movie, incidentally); (4) speaking for ourselves and no one else, if we're going for that level of foodie-ism, we're more likely to hit some place like West Town or Salpicón, which offer a bit more variety.

None of that is meant to detract from the coolness of the card deck. We're looking forward to exploring with it.

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