By day, my friend James Sorenham was an architect of his business group’s data warehouse and business intelligence strategies. By night and on weekends, James was a gentleman farmer tending to a small herd at his Broke Again ranch outside Portland, Oregon. James took immense pride in raising prized beef cattle and kept his colleagues apprised of their progress through his weekly status reports. Alas, his writing skills weren’t in the same zip code as his data management skills so when he reported that he had “personally inseminated sixteen cows,” he got teased mercilessly about his deviant bestial activities.
The fact that David Burke is the first chef to own his own bull means “personal insemination” of beef cattle can best be left to the bovine persuasion. That leaves Chef Burke to follow his passions as one of America’s most pioneering chefs and self-proclaimed chef, artist, entrepreneur and inventor. The New York-based Burke is a practitioner of culinology, a revolutionary approach to food that blends technology and the culinary arts. By experimenting with interesting ingredients and cooking techniques, he has developed such culinary innovations as an edible bacon candle which can be lit, smelled and eaten. His innovative style translates well to the arena of prime grade beef.
Founded in 2006, David Burke’s Primehouse has redefined the modern American steakhouse with its out-of-the-box approach to culinary creativity. Located in the James Chicago Hotel on the corner of Rush and Ontario just west of the Magnificent Mile, the restaurant remains one of Chicago’s few remaining practitioners of dry-aging its beef. The Primehouse dry-ages its beef in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room on the premises. While USDA prime grade, hand-selected beef is the restaurant’s raison d’etre, the menu also showcases Chef Burke’s signature whimsical and imaginative dishes such as the Lollipop Tree, cheesecakes on lollipop sticks.
The Primehouse has two full-time butchers who butcher meats and fish on a daily basis Monday through Friday. The back wall of the aging room is lined with Himalayan pink salt which performs two functions. It purifies the air and slowly seasons the beef by extracting all the moisture out of the beef. The Himalayan Salt Room (henceforth known as the aging room) is maintained at a constant state of between 34 and 40 degrees with sixty-percent humidity (a normal refrigerator is at about ninety-percent humidity). All the beef is tagged with the date it was placed into the aging room and its weight at the time.
Because of the room’s climatic conditions, the beef begins to break down very slowly, but doesn’t dehydrate all the way through. Instead it becomes more tender. While in the drying room, however, the beef’s exterior is desiccated and the cut of beef is firm and hard as might be expected from beef stored in a cold-temperature. Ideally, the beef experiences about a twenty-percent loss of volume after 28 days and another fifteen-percent when it’s trimmed later. At 75 days, the beef experiences a loss in volume of about 55 percent. The Primehouse dry-ages ribeyes, sirloins, short-loins and chuck as well as prosciutto, kidneys, veal breads and brisket.
With “wet-aging,” the process used by many of Chicago’s best steak and chop houses, the beef is placed into a plastic bag and is then cryo-vacuumed (air is sucked out of it). The beef basically “sits” there and flavor isn’t developed. When you cut a wet-aged slab of beef into individual steaks, a puddle of blood ensues With the dry-aging process used at the Primehouse, flavor is actually developed because of the catalytic intensification. When a dry-aged cut of beef is prepared, what’s being cooked is the beauteous marbling and fat which breaks down the beef, making it tender and imparting a sweet, meaty flavor some have likened to an exotic foie gras like quality.
The beef at David Burke’s Primehouse is brought in once a week from Kentucky. The aforementioned 2,500-pound bull, who just might have the best job in the world, performs his “service” three times a day six days a week. The cows are high quality Black Angus prime. The aging room can accommodate more approximately 12,000 pounds of beef valued as much as some homes. Because of the restaurant’s bustling business, the aging room retains a month and a half of inventory at all times. The minimum dry-aging period is 28 days and the maximum is 75 though one ribeye has remained in the aging room since April 4, 2006 when the restaurant first opened. It’s starting weight was 10.10 pounds, but today, it’s a mere shadow of its former self.
When the beef is trimmed down, all the aged beef trim and fat is rendered down and tossed with roasted garlic, mustard powder and spices before being brushed on each steak as it goes out. The staff calls it “beef love.” It’s no wonder so many consider the Primehouse the very best steakhouse not only in Chicago, but in the entire country. Prime dry-aged beef is only one of many things the restaurant does exceedingly well. Chicago Magazine named the Primehouse “Burker” one of the top ten burgers in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the ten ounces of beef which form the beef patty are also dry aged.
The Primehouse has a relatively understated ambiance. It’s contemporary and relaxing. The cynosure at one wall is shelf work from which small blocks of Himalayan salt dangle. Lighting is subdued, but sufficient for the visual appreciation of your meal. The ambassador-like staff will take excellent care of you, explaining every detail of the aging process to the extent you want. We asked a lot of questions and were amazed at our server’s encyclopedic knowledge. Our server happened to be from Santa Fe and took very good care of us. Frankly, the only aspect of our meal that wasn’t absolutely first-rate was the soundtrack which seemed overly loud and disjointed for an otherwise classy milieu.
As you contemplate the menu,a cheesy Parmesan bread “popover” on a tin-can-like pan will be delivered to your table. It’s a delicious difference from the de rigueur, ho-hum bread served at many steak restaurants. The exterior of the Parmesan popover is crusty while the interior is light and chewy. Best of all, it’s served with soft butter. You’ll luxuriate in the popover’s wispy softness as you contemplate the “sticks and stones” on the menu. Sticks are essentially items such as bacon, octopus and Kobe corn dogs served on a lollipop type stick. Stones are hot Himalayan salt stones atop which you cook such starters as ahi tuna, steak and lamb loin.
One experience not to be missed is the tableside creation of a Caesar salad. It’s one of the unique and personal experiences that once set apart the very best prime steak restaurants of a bygone era A specially trained “Caesar barista” or “Caesarista” whisks the Parmesan-rich dressing by hand with egg yolks then tosses it with fresh Romaine lettuce. Other classic ingredients include garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and of course, Parmesan. Your Caesarista will ask whether or not you want anchovies on your salad. Frankly, it’s the only way a Caesar salad should ever be made.
From among the “sticks,” the one which called loudest to me is the bacon, five sticks of thick pork-belly bacon. This is a perfect marriage of savory and sweet, pairing a smoky, salty bacon laced with black pepper and a lacquer-like maple syrup coating. This fun carnival-stick-food-like starter is further proof that bacon goes well with everything. From the “stones” section of the menu, we had the Ahi tuna with a spicy chili bean sauce. For what more could you ask: five pieces of uncooked tuna per order plus the treat of preparing it yourself on a thick Himalayan salt stone. If you like your sashimi slightly seared, you’d better pay close attention to the cooking process. Even at just slightly more than seared, the tuna is quite good. The spicy chili bean sauce adds punch and saltiness.
On an October 8, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “Meat & Potatoes,” host Rahm Fama called the Primehouse’s 75-day dry-aged rib-eye “the best steak I’ve had in my 35 years!” An endorsement from a highly respected chef and fellow carnivore (especially one from New Mexico like Fama) certainly carries a lot of weight with me. While the 75-day dry aged rib-eye may be perpetually listed on the menu, it isn’t always available. On the date of our visit, only one 75-day aged steak remained. My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner insisted I have the privilege of consuming it. Bill would order the 55-day aged ribeye and Paul the 40-day aged ribeye.
I must admit there’s more than a little bit of trepidation in ordering a steak the menu describes as having “intense beef flavor.” That sounds just a bit intimidating. Just what is intense beef flavor and why haven’t I had it before? Our server recommended the steak be prepared at medium-rare. Two bottles of David Burke’s 207L (the designation for Burke’s prize bull) Prime Steak Sauce were brought to our table, but none of us could conceive of desecrating our steaks. No sauce could possibly have improved on perfection. The 75-day aged rib-eye was indeed sinfully rich, decadent and utterly beefy. The rib-eye was richly marbled and just as our server explained, the marbling intensified the aged flavor. So did the “beef love.” The steak was tender and moist with a pinkish hue, but not the bloody flavor of wet-aged beef.
There was a discernible difference in flavor profile between the 75-day rib-eye and the 55-day aged rib-eye described on the menu as “deep, concentrated beef flavor.” This was another absolutely outstanding steak, one named “best dry aged steak” by Chicago Magazine in 2008. The 55-day aged rib eye had a nice fat and marbling content and indeed, a bold and concentrated flavor. The 40-day aged ribeye, described as having “rich beef flavor” was similarly distinctive. We were amazed at what a difference a few days makes! Why all prime beef and chop houses don’t dry age their steaks for as long as David Burke’s Primehouse is a mystery.
There are seven side dishes available to have with your steak. All are available for seven dollars a piece or three for nineteen dollars (as of September, 2012). The Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style will never be mistaken for Kraft dinner. It’s a grown-up mac n’ cheese made with a rigatoni noodle, heavy cream, fresh peas and rich cheeses. Another superb side is the creamy spinach tinged with garlic. Both the mac n’ cheese and the creamy spinach were very rich, perhaps too rich after having had such an indulgent steak.
David Burke has lamented that the steakhouse experience often leaves guests so full, they don’t have room for desserts. That’s one of the reasons so many of his dishes are intended to be shared. You have got to save room for one of Burke’s fun and inventive desserts. The Primehouse desserts, cheeses and coffee menu is unlike that of any restaurant not owned by David Burke. As fun as it is to peruse, have your server explain the dessert in which you’re interested. Desserts are not always as they appear. The “carrot cake” which my friend Bill ordered was essentially a “deconstructed” and reinvented carrot cake. The components–gingerbread dream rooibos cake, pineapple golden raisin jam, orange cheesecake, black walnut ice cream and candied carrots–aren’t what your mom’s carrot cake recipe calls for, but they make for an outstanding dessert.
The banana split sundae is also unlike any other banana split-sundae hybrid you’ve ever had. It’s layers of flavor complexity and absolute decadent deliciousness, one of the very best desserts I’ve ever had. Each component–salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans and roasted pineapple slices–would have made a wonderful dessert on its own, but the compilation was mouth-watering. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the next best thing on the menu to one of the fabulous dry-aged steaks.
David Burke’s Primehouse is a pioneering steakhouse in a city long renowned for its prime steakhouses. It’s a beef emporium for the new millennium with dry-aged prime beef unlike any other anywhere.
DAVID BURKE’S PRIMEHOUSE
616 North Rush at Ontario
The James Hotel Chicago
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: 75-Day Aged Ribeye, 55-Day Aged Ribeye, 35-Day Kansas City Strip, Banana Split Sundae, Carrot Cake, Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style