Phil Vettel searches Chicago for great prime rib

Prime time: Our critic embarks on 7-restaurant prime rib odyssey, au jus

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Prime rib at the Chicago Cut Steakhouse (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune / March 12, 2013)

This began, as stories sometimes do, with a reader request. A gentleman asked for recommendations for prime rib. Not steaks, not beef in general, but specifically prime rib. The only condition he imposed was that he didn't want to wait until the weekend to enjoy it. And that complicated things a little.

Prime rib, also known as a standing rib roast, generally is a very large roast (10 pounds or more) that's cooked for several hours. Putting prime rib on the menu requires a commitment on the part of the restaurant (which stands to lose money if there aren't enough orders on a given night), and some restaurants are only comfortable making that commitment on the weekend, when customer counts are highest.

Plus, not everybody sees prime rib as the be-all and end-all of beefy goodness. For one thing, prime rib isn't necessarily made with prime-grade beef; the name prime rib is a historic term referring to the "primal" cut of beef it comes from. For another, prime rib is a very fatty cut of meat, and while fat conveys flavor, large hunks of fat are less than appealing. Indeed, by the time you've carved the fat from the part you actually want to eat, you might wonder why you bothered.

Steakhouses are good places to look for prime rib, naturally, but rather than visit every top-level steakhouse in town (pleasant as that prospect might be), I tried to go a bit further afield. Besides, as I soon learned, while all prime rib places serve steak (with one notable exception), not all steakhouses bother with prime rib.

Some general observations: One, these places have got their cooking times down pat; I never got a single overcooked or undercooked slab of meat. Two, after eating seven orders of prime rib in the span of a month — in the process, my blood going from O-positive to 5W-30 — this is one dish I won't be ordering again for a long time.

Speaking of long time, check out the ages on some of these places.

Tom's Steak House

Out to Melrose Park for my first prime rib — or, more accurately, my first attempt at prime rib. Because, after fighting commuter traffic for what seemed like an eternity (OK, an hour), I found myself at a nice, comfy table, glass of wine in hand, at Tom's, which has been dishing out steaks and prime rib since 1952. And a smiling waitress came up to me and spoke these dreaded words: "We have everything except prime rib." Yes, on weekdays at Tom's, the kitchen routinely runs out of prime rib before 7:30 p.m., because seemingly everybody orders the stuff. I scanned the dining room: Prime rib, prime rib, prime rib, two prime ribs. "I just sold the last two orders to that table," my waitress said, apologetically. I briefly considered offering to buy one of the orders from that table but decided that would be too weird. And that it probably wouldn't work.

My second visit, I arrived earlier, and as the waitress approached my table, I said, "We're here for the prime rib. Do you still have some?" And indeed she did.

The prime rib arrives to your table via cart, the meat still sizzling on a metal platter raised over a bed of coals. You choose (actually, by this point you've already chosen) the $26.95 queen cut or the $28.95 Tom's cut. The price includes soup or salad, and a large baked potato with cheese and chive sauce. The prime rib is tasty, no doubt. I'd suggest only that the servers be less generous when ladling on the jus. A little bit is fine, but presenting the meat in a virtual lake of pan drippings means you have to slice very carefully to avoid a subsequent visit to the dry cleaner. Which is one reason, I guess, that nobody wears a tie here. 1901 W. North Ave., Melrose Park, 708-345-2766.

Miller's Pub

Dating to 1950, Miller's is well-known as a reliable late-night dining option in the Loop. Its biggest claim to culinary fame is undoubtedly the barbecued ribs, though Miller's also boasts a good prime rib (not a surprise) and an astonishingly deep selection of imported and local craft beers (quite a surprise to me; I really need to get out more).

Miller's Pub pulls in a lot of regulars, so much so that you draw funny looks if you linger too long over the menu. I knew what I wanted, of course, but my son, along for the ride, didn't, and it took three tries before his decision-making and the waitress' appearances coincided. That said, the prime rib ($29.95) — flavorful and relatively light on excess fat — is worth your attention. 134 S. Wabash Ave., 312-263-4988.

Lawry's the Prime Rib

No roundup can ignore the temple of prime rib inside the circa-1890s McCormick Mansion on Ontario Street. The place is a trip; the ornate (but scrupulously maintained) dining room is hung with Sir Francis Drake-look oversize oil portraits; waitresses are clad in vintage, starched cuff-and-collar uniforms; and carvers, who man the massive silver carts that wheel the beef to your table, have their chef jackets adorned with gold "Royal Order of Carvers" medallions.

The original Lawry's opened in Beverly Hills in 1938, though Chicago's outpost has been around "only" since 1974. And for much of the time since, the restaurant served prime rib and nothing but, though later the menu expanded to include lobster tails and salmon. But for the majority of diners, it's just a matter of deciding how big a cut you want and how rare you want it. Prices range from $37-$58, and that includes the spinning salad-bowl salad (a bit of table-side showmanship as the dressing is drizzled into a bowl spinning on a bed of ice), mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding (a savory skillet-baked batter cake) and whipped-cream-horseradish sauce. The beef is terrific, the wine list impressive (the $32 private-label Lawry's cab is a bargain), but the ceremony and history are what really sell the place. 100 E. Ontario St., 312-787-5000.

Rosewood Restaurant

The second-best prime rib I ate was at this Rosemont restaurant, in the shadows of O'Hare airport and the river. Rosewood faces formidable steakhouse competition in this area — Gibsons, Morton's and Harry Caray's have Rosemont outposts — but Rosewood has been holding its own since 1990. A big part of the reason is owner James Mandas, who's almost never absent from the host stand or dining room, where he meets and greets like the pro he is.

The sprawling property includes a white-tablecloth dining room and adjacent banquet facility; a la carte dining and banquet capacity aren't usually the best of friends, but here they coexist nicely. The prime rib ($44.95) is double-cut thick, juicy and well-trimmed, a real beauty. Vegetable sides are a tad steep ($9.95), but I'd go back here in a second. 9421 W. Higgins Road, Rosemont, 847-696-9494.

Chicago Cut Steakhouse

The holy grail of prime rib lives here. No prime rib I've ever tasted could match the flavor, texture and beauty of the enormous, plate-size slab of bone-in perfection that I had at Chicago Cut. It's very expensive ($59), but the steakhouse uses USDA prime beef, hits it with just the right touch of salt and serves it with a little horseradish on the side.

No sides or salad are included, but there is a very good bread basket that arrives unbidden. Kick in another $7 for a vegetable if you like. Beautiful surroundings, terrific service and a deep wine list that's more than worthy of this fabulous beef are all bonuses. A relative pup among these veterans — the restaurant opened in 2010 — Chicago Cut is a big dog where it counts. 300 N. LaSalle St., 312-329-1800.

Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse

Out to Lombard to sample the prime rib at Harry Caray's (there also is a Rosemont location, as well as the River North original). This outpost is popular enough that weekend reservations are tough to get, but here's a tip: Head for the very large lounge area, where it's first come, first served, and there are plenty of tables; as long as the multitude of TV screens don't bother you, you'll be happy and comfortable here.

Harry's is known for its prime steaks, but this night, at this place, the prime rib ($32.95) was a disappointment — fattier than most and lower in flavor, and yes, I know that's contradictory. Not a bad cut by any means, but not as good as several others. 70 Yorktown Shopping Center, Lombard, 630-953-3400.

Wildfire

Another local restaurant with multiple locations (besides the Oak Brook edition and the River North original, there are outposts in Lincolnshire, Glenview and Schaumburg), and another place for which one needs a crowbar to get into on weekends. The steaks are the big draw, but the six-hour roasted prime rib, rubbed with garlic and sea salt, is no slouch. Available in three cuts ranging from $25.95-$33.95, the prime rib (like all entrees here) includes one side. Definitely worth your attention. 232 Oakbrook Center, Oak Brook, 630-586-9000.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

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