Representing growth technology companies, I find myself always on the lookout for industry-destructive business models. The same rings true for great restaurants. Chicago is flush with solid chow spots, but at our core, we are a meat-and-potatoes town.
If I sat you down in a room and presented you with six prime rib-eye steaks from the kitchens of the six top Chicago steakhouses, I defy you to distinguish any one from the rest. Once you hit the highest tier, a Chicago steakhouse is what it is. That is, until a James Beard Award-winning Iron Chef breaks the mold.
Chicago-raised Jose Garces, noted for his appearance on the “Iron Chef America” television show, recently opened his Argentine steakhouse, Rural Society (455 N. Park Drive), in Streeterville’s brand new Loews Hotel. Forget everything you knew about both hotel dining and Chicago steakhouses and prepare for complete sensory delight.
It has been said we eat with our eyes. But a truly memorable culinary experience combines visual stimulation with pleasing aromas and a comfortable ambience of gentle-feel melodic audio. Only then, when all of our other senses are piqued, can we fully invoke the entirety of our sense of taste. Rural Society got me there.
Enter through the revolving door and you’re immediately hit with the pleasing aroma of the 10-foot parilla (grill) which is located front and center in the lovely open kitchen. Garces traveled to Argentina last year, where he experienced the skill and passion of cooking by flame.
Rural Society authentically brings this open flame concept to Garces’ hometown — where meats, fish and vegetables are prepared using imported quebracho wood, from a tree native to South America, whose timber and bark are a rich source of tannin.
The bar is welcoming and worth a visit even if you don’t have time for the full dining experience. It pairs a professional Latin vibe with an intriguing signature cocktail list, led by a refreshing Argentine staple of Fernet-Branca and Coke.
Should you make time for the chef’s tasting menu (splurge for the wine pairings, which were selected from an impressive South American-sourced wine list), it will blow you away. This is not your ordinary chef’s tasting, it is the kicked-up, “Iron Chef,” steakhouse version. That means come hungry and leave entirely satisfied.
The meal begins with bread service — which I skip 99 percent of the time. This bread, however, falls into the 1 percent — think warm cheese popovers and spongy fresh focaccia served with Malbec reduction butter.
The Argentine small plates follow. Standouts included morrones, fire-roasted red peppers topped with grilled black anchovies and whipped eggplant and goat cheese; octopus carpaccio topped with tomato escabeche and crispy Malbec chips; and from the house-made sausage selections, the grilled chorizo exploded in my mouth as a juicy, savory, salty delight.
Perhaps the most surprising offering of the meal was the saffron taglierini from the pasta selections. Italian-Argentine is one of the largest ethnic groups in Argentina, and, as such, Argentine cuisine is strongly influenced by Italian cuisine. This perfectly cooked, delicately flavored, heavily nuanced pasta dish easily could have been mistaken as having come out of the finest Italian kitchen.
The noodles were married to a subtle saffron broth and surrounded by rock shrimp, cockles and peeled, roasted, heirloom grape tomatoes. This masterpiece was expertly finished with a dusting of botargo (salted, cured fish roe). Executive Chef Corey Morris hit this one out of the park.
Of course, the grilled meats are the stars, but I’ll start with the sides — the grilled wild mushrooms paired beautifully with the steak, and they must be one of chef’s signatures, because I remember eating them previously at his other Chicago destination, Mercat a la Planxa (638 S. Michigan Ave.). I also enjoyed the fire-roasted beets over orange vinaigrette and topped with toasted coriander seeds. The real takeaway, however, were the roasted potatoes served beside a black truffle hollandaise — these seemingly simple potatoes demonstrated ambitious culinary skills. They were crispy but not greasy, and rich but not heavy.
I’m a sucker for a long-boned, perfectly medium-rare lamb chop, and these were more special than most. Crusted on the outside, succulently deep red in the center, topped with a finishing salt and otherwise unadulterated. I challenge anyone to deliver me a more expertly prepared piece of meat; I will gladly pay for it. (Note: My wife feels about crispy potatoes the way I feel about lamb chops; I ate one potato while she took a bite of her lamb chop, then we traded — double rainbow!)
We swayed from the obvious choices of the rib-eye or the tenderloin and went for the signature picanha — a wagyu rump steak, sourced from the Pacific Northwest, grilled with its fat cap on then trimmed and sliced for family-style sharing. This incredibly flavorful and tender cut became even more special when paired with a house sauce that reminded me of a Latin-inspired giardiniera.
Then, Morris delivered our lobster. This succulent crustacean came fire-grilled and basted in a house-made chimichurri. My first bite into the tail meat reminded me how truly special food can make you feel when the finest ingredients are treated with the utmost care and respect.
Rural Society is destined to become one of the hottest reservations in town. Polished professional service, a warm welcoming atmosphere, authentic Argentine cuisine and a carefully curated wine program all combine to destroy what we previously thought we knew about the ideal steakhouse.