If Colonel Gaston had charged the kinds of prices that Morton's (named for its co-founder, Arnie Morton) does for its beef, his restaurant might have survived into the next century. But the trend of expensive, upscale steakhouses is a relatively recent phenomenon (in fact, the first Chris Steakhouse, which restaurateur Ruth Fertel bought and eventually upgraded, started out as a joint); until the 1960s, a good thick and not-too-pricey steak was the staple of almost every restaurant in America, even at Italian restaurants.
But at Morton's -- as well as at its equally tony local competitors, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and the homegrown Plaza III -- the steaks are larger than life, hotter than a firecracker, and costly. Some diners may not bat an eyelash when they see a 48-ounce porterhouse listed on the blackboard menu for more than 60 bucks, but it left me speechless. A $60 steak that doesn't include a salad, a potato, or even a piece of broccoli? All the visions of the long-lasting things $60 could buy flashed before my eyes, and I was reminded of my friend Rita's excuse, back in the freewheeling 1970s, for hating recreational drugs: "If I'm going to spend my money on anything, I want to be able to wear it the next morning."
But prices obviously are irrelevant at Morton's, a restaurant for high rollers and people with big expense accounts. There's no real menu other than the blackboards and a discreet slip of paper that lists the prices -- and if you have to ask, you can't afford to eat here.
Servers hand out the slips of thick vellum only after they (at Morton's, two waiters work as a team) give a much-rehearsed performance at the table. And it's a real show, involving a set of props and a zesty enthusiasm that seems to be leading up to a song or a tap-dance finale. But unfortunately, once they wheel out the cart and hold up all the plastic-wrapped hunks of beef and plates of fresh fish and the oversize vegetables, extolling their virtues with great gusto, the servers wind down the whole exhibition simply by passing out those slips of paper and asking for a dinner order.
The show isn't really over, however, because all the food is oversize and dazzling to look at. No other props and set pieces are really necessary. In fact, the dining rooms, carved out of what was once office space for the Hall's department store, are as dull as afterthoughts. The main dining room is dark and long, with low ceilings and an open kitchen area at one end (which is, inexplicably, the quieter dining area) and at the other a plate-glass window looking into the unmemorable bar. The room isn't as unabashedly masculine as Plaza III or as fussy as Ruth's Chris' parlorlike rooms. Instead, it has all the charm of a middle-class hotel dining room. Yes, fresh, dewy roses accent the linen-draped tables, and the crystal and silverware sparkle as if they were part of a movie set. But the room is without any defining personality at all -- which may be a clever choice, since it's the staff members who give off the sparks, starting with a young, personable general manager and going right down the line to an attractive, well-trained, and lively wait crew.
No price may be too high for the kind of gracious and attentive service you get at Morton's, not even $11.95 for a jumbo shrimp cocktail or $10.50 for broiled sea scallops wrapped in crispy bacon and served with a dollop of tart apricot chutney. On one visit I shared a plate of the tender, luscious scallops with two friends. Deana, the dentist, surely could afford to eat at Morton's all the time, I teased her, but she doesn't.
"I have two children," said Deana, her eyes widening as a server set a giant circle of bread on the table in front of us. "I couldn't bring them here, even if we could afford it." Deana noted that the crusty, round loaf of bread, topped with tiny flecks of baked onion, looked exactly like a giant hamburger bun. It set the tone for the big food yet to come. Even the salads were big, bigger, biggest. Deana could barely make a dent in a plate of fat slices of fresh beefsteak tomatoes ($6.95) drenched in a tidal wave of blue cheese dressing; I was daunted by the enormous cold, lightly seasoned Caesar ($6.95) with its giant croutons, and I ate only about a third of it.
We were equally intimidated by the size of our dinners, which seemed large enough to feed the populations of small villages. Deana's double filet mignon ($32.95) looked like an average filet on steroids but was superbly tender, juicy, and delicious. I had ordered the Sicilian Veal Chop ($27.95), a recipe that probably wasn't from any traditional Sicilian cookbook but was a tasty giant chop of tender veal, dusted in seasoned breadcrumbs and baked until it almost could be cut with a fork. Bob had a New York Strip ($32.95), because there's no Kansas City strip on the menu ("That's a corporate decision," announced one of our servers, "although you'd think being in Kansas City would make them want to add one"). It was tender but, Bob said, "not any better than I've had in other steakhouses." His baked potato ($4.95) was as big as a size-10 shoe, and we watched in fascination as one server opened it and another server, toting containers of sour cream, butter, and bits of cooked bacon, stepped in to load up the spud. Deana had ordered the lyonnaise potatoes ($4.95) -- which sounded so elegant, supposedly being prepared "in the manner of Lyons," France. But they were simply all-American fried onions and potatoes, delicately crisp and fragrant and the best possible addition to an oversize slab of meat. We were all somewhat disappointed in the plate of sautéed wild mushrooms ($7.95) intended to dazzle up the steaks, but the pile of soggy, grayish portabella, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms actually had the opposite effect.
An another visit, a friend and I shared a single dinner: a sizzling, perfectly cooked 22-ounce porterhouse ($32.95) and a plate of hash-browned potatoes ($4.95), served as a crusty, golden cake of shredded potatoes and onion, as much a timeless classic as the hits of Vic Damone and Dean Martin that were playing over the sound system.
At Morton's, it's possible to feel the excesses of such early American gastronomes as Diamond Jim Brady, who stopped eating dinner only when his girth began to press uncomfortably against the dinner table, usually after appetizers, seafood, steak, and an entire tray of pastries. Pushing away their unfinished dinner plates, Bob and Deana groaned and shook their heads when a server scurried over with a tray loaded with a liqueur-flavored chocolate velvet cake, a wedge of dense cheesecake, and glistening bowls of fresh berries. But in true Diamond Jim fashion, I had ordered our dessert in advance, Hot Godiva Chocolate Cake ($8.95), which arrived as a little mound of spongy cake with a hot, fudgy center, all surrounded by whirls of real whipped cream. It was far more delicious and decadent than one of Morton's other signature desserts, the hot baked soufflés ($12), which also must be ordered in advance and come in chocolate, lemon, raspberry, or Grand Marnier flavors.
"The lemon is the best," one server whispered. The fragile dish arrived, puffy and steaming, but once the waiter fumbled in splitting open the airy circle of baked egg whites and sugar, the plate in front of me contained a soupy, eggy froth, mildly flavored with fresh lemon and as unattractive a dessert as I've ever seen. Not even the whipped cream and fresh raspberries could give it any pizzazz.
I recommend finishing dessert before you look at the dinner bill, which may ruin whatever remaining appetite you have. Even without ordering wine or liquor, paying for a dinner for three at Morton's can be a staggering experience for those of us without Diamond Jim's expense account. C'est la vie, I said, blushing and pulling out a credit card. You only live once.
And at Morton's prices, once is all you need.