By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
From the iconic Gene and Georgetti to the new clubby power scene Chicago Cut Steakhouse, the only chance a steak house has to make it in our great city is to have its very own signature atmosphere. Benny's Chop House, in the shadow of Trump Tower and Nordstrom, is an old school steak joint that is busting with good cheer, great food and just enough mischief to understand that the good folks who run it take their food and service seriously, but not so much themselves. Benny's might be the fanciest fun place I've been to for a long time. You know that they like it a little silly when they have a S'mores Cheesecake on the dessert menu that literally looks like a murder scene, with chocolate mud and a giant perfectly toasted marshmallow served with a graham cracker on a plate smeared with blood red cocoa butter that serves no purpose other than make this delicious treat look like an opening scene from "Law & Order." Nope, not going to find that in a snooty place.
The space is old school, but dressed up with some modern flair. Warm, dark-paneled rooms, a long, well-appointed and lively bar, tremendous wine list and great bar snacks makes this a great after-work cocktail stop.
The food is spectacular. We started with a jumbo crab cake sitting in mild horseradish/ mustard cream. It's broiled to produce an outside crust that protects generously portioned sweet crabmeat. Fancy sliders are all the rage and none better than Benny's take on them. For $10, choose three among classic burger, lobster roll, crab cake or prime filet. It's a great use of $10 and it's also available at the bar. We chose the filet, which were bigger than the bite-size, thin-cut filet, also crusted, served on grill-marked, warm buns. Delicious. I think that all steak houses are legally required to serve lobster bisque and all reviewers are required to try it, so I did. It was a good soup, but I don't think it was lobster bisque. More tomato than butter, more chunks of lobster and veggies than velvety smooth. Still good. Best in the appetizer show goes to the wild mushroom truffle oil flat bread, also available at the bar, for $7.
Steaks are the showstopper here and the only problem is the choices. Be prepared to endure a good-natured, but lengthy explanation of the nuances of dry aging, wet aging, corn-fed, grass-fed, pretty cows, ugly cows, gently tickled cows and every other kind of beef prep, but our guy got through it with enough good humor for us to know that he knew what he was talking about. We opted for the rib eye duo — don't remember what the cow ate but I'm pretty sure its last thought was "Dang, where did that hammer come from?" Whatever the circumstances, the result was delicious, two portions, 6 ounces each from the top and 6 more from the bottom of the rib eye, perfectly cooked to temperature sitting around a mound of Yorkshire pudding, which was more adornment then accompaniment, but a nice touch just the same.
There are a bunch of different kinds of burgers to choose from. We went for the signature Benny's Burger served with blue cheese and port wine onions. Definitely a knife and fork burger and a big, perfectly good one at that, but the scene stealer on this dish were the truffle fries. Salty, crunchy and a must for truffle flavor fans. The lobster roll was a great surprise and a great example of not screwing something pretty great up by over thinking and over preparing it. This was a good, crunchy roll — think beef sandwich size — overflowing with lots of big chunks of lobster, served cold with a very light mayo to keep it moist with drawn butter on the side. Perfect. Pasta comes in small portions, or larger ones, given the size of the large Torchietti. A small portion should be plenty for the average mortal. This big plate of swirly little pastas came in a thick mushroom ragout, chockfull of fennel sausage and peas. I can't wait to come back and have this on a cold winter day. The side dishes include the usual array of potatoes and veggies, but we couldn't pass up the blue cheese croquettes which turned out to be three to an order of giant tater tots drowning in a rich, decadent blue cheese sauce.
Finish your meal with a cup of dark, rich coffee and some house-made ice cream. You could get the sorbet, but after the croquettes, who are you kidding? Benny's is a great place for client meals or just for fun. The tables are spaced for conversation and privacy, and the staff and food are pretty close to perfect.
Across the street is Trump Tower and its fancy eating room Sixteen. I really wanted to hate it, but I couldn't. The room is amazing with 30-foot ceilings and views overlooking the city, a huge terrace that serves until late and (I'm choking a little here) really nice people to feed and water you. Try the trout, pan crisped moist and as good as it gets. It's a classy summer evening drink place if you get tired of competing with Snooki wannabees from the suburbs for admission to Roof on theWit.
Benny's Chop House
444 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago
Appetizers: $4.99 to $16.99
Entrees: $24.99 to $79.99