Everyone says it's the beef. It's the cut. It's the animal. It's the grade. Sometimes it's the broiler: all 1,800 degrees worth.
At N9NE Steak House, the broiler is 1,200 degrees: "1200öF: We proudly serve prime aged steaks and chops," reads the menu. From there the choices unravel: filet mignon béarnaise, New York sirloin, porterhouse, bone-in rib eye.
But N9NE Group chef/partner Michael Kornick says N9NE has its secret weapon to lift itself above the Dallas steakhouse noise of prime and super-hot broilers. He claims N9NE Group has the tightest meat specs in the business. N9NE takes just a few steaks from each rib, leaving those prime cuts that may have thick nerve tissue or knuckles of fat for those other guys.
N9NE can afford such pickiness. Michael Morton, who co-founded N9NE (the group's litter includes Ghostbar, Nove Italiano and the upcoming Liquid Sky lounge) with Scott DeGraff, is the son of Morton's The Steakhouse founder Arnie Morton. So N9NE has the benefit of Morton's long-term relationships with Chicago prime beef purveyors Allen Brothers and Stock Yards.
What does it mean?
On a Friday night, it's hard to tell. N9NE is big, with shapely metal stools surrounding the rotary Champagne caviar bar, a silver flake dome punched into the ceiling with computer-controlled hue-shifting luminance, discothèque mirror-ball scales on the huge support posts, a glassed-in display kitchen and enough hard surfaces to make racquetball a distinct possibility.
There are only a few diners stationed at the tables, and already the ears are splitting. We order a LaValentina 2002 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Spelt, perhaps a bit light for steak, but with its rich fruit and Mediterranean mineral layers, it proves a good beef-seafood straddler. After a label exam, the wine is immediately decanted and the empty bottle is posted nearby; a good—if uncommon—wine service touch.
N9NE decants all of their red wines, explains our server, except the pinot noirs. This was the last thing we heard her say. An underage drinker at our table ordered a Shirley Temple. She received an iced tea—easy to confuse the two in the static. Over at the next table a server delivers a plate of shoestring potatoes. It looks like a plated bale of hay. I don't want the bale of hay.
"What?" she shouts. "Loud. Loud. It's really loud. When the caviar bar is full, it's even louder." That was the last coherent words we were able to tease from her lips. N9NE is an 11 on the volume knob.
There's a certain frustrating incongruence to N9NE and its fat meat cum phat meat market. Haute cuisine consumes huge amounts of sensory bandwidth. Lots of nightclub buzz and bombast—for which N9NE strives—stops up that bandwidth, slowing everything to merciless limp. How can you eat a steak when you can't even hear yourself lap prime beef juice against your lips? Then the disco starts: Do Ya Think I'm Sexy and something from Michael Jackson before his metamorphosis into a powdered-sugar doughnut. Whoa, is that K.C. and the Sunshine Band?
"Won't you cut...see...your $*$^ng?"
Something about cutting your liking is what I think she said after several repeat requests. My ears hurt. My throat is raspy.
It goes without saying (even if you could hear what isn't being said) that N9NE steaks are freaking good to chew. The New York sirloin arrives thick, charred and pock-marked, resting in a lusty bath of juices and pepper specks and fat pearls with just a rosemary sprig and a couple of mushroom caps to counter its thuggish mien. (Steaks are not pretty food.) Sever the fibers, and the meat separates into clean pink folds, with little pockets of dirty butter-colored fat. In the mouth the meat tears apart like lacy satin. Flavors spread like an oil slick—subtle at first—before they pick up potency and rampage through the mouth. Not bad.
Scallops are even more seductive. Five thick mollusks in cilantro lime sauce ring a Southwestern ragout. They're singed into slight crispness while the meat, breaking off into clean sections, unfurls into a range of marine potency: bitter, butter, sweet and brine. Southwestern spice and citrus add buzz to the profile.
It's hard to imagine coming to N9NE to savor an ounce of Russian osetra at $95. The sensory rigor is too intense for such oceanic subtlety. Better to sip on bubbles and glower through the sight lines afforded by the rotund Champagne caviar bar. But there is a budget version: the trio of American caviars.
The trio is a dozen compact compositions arranged in a matrix. They're founded on a tiny potato pancake that behaves more like a hash brown vignette. On top of this is a dab of crème fraiche, an "X" of chives and the dabs of caviar: black paddlefish, pink salmon and orange tobiko. In the mouth the flavors mingle with relative and satisfying ease. But that pancake is a little disconcerting. It's cold, transforming the fats absorbed during frying into a paste. You can appreciate the problem; a hot pancake would have melted the crème fraiche, creating a runny caviar mess. Still...
Even more amusing is a ditty called two cones. It's a pair of slender pastry bugles filled with tuna tartare (one) and lobster salad (the other) floating in a wire-frame server. Chopsticks are provided, a steakhouse first if memory serves. They're good, if a little warm.
But it's hard to tease out the details because the room's hiss and fizzle seems to always gain velocity. On a second visit, our waiter rattles through the menu like an auction barker. He must. The noise demands it. Though does he have to describe and comment on virtually every item? "Very well thought out; very well put together," he says of the ahi, hamachi and salmon "sashimi N9NE." That's a whole lotta shouting.
He urges garbage on us. Garbage is a chilled mound of romaine, shrimp, salami, artichoke, hearts of palm and tomato topped with fried onions in brisk Dijon vinaigrette. At N9NE it's good to eat garbage.
Smooth lobster bisque in cognac crème fraiche is inert with little marine potency. It's reminiscent of papier-mâché paste. Ahi tuna is deliciously silken, but the sea bass is spongy and dry.
That's why it's better to stick with meat. Kobe carpaccio is thin, rosy patches webbed with fat capillaries. They adhere to a plate with watercress and marinated mushrooms and onions. The meat is cool and lacy, separating into rich ravels.
The juice-riddled Kobe burger is a feast of girth. A puffy bun hides oozing slices of Vermont cheddar and thick ribbons of applewood-smoked bacon. House-made ketchup with mustard seed is provided for trimming, and delicious, hot and crisp sea salt-crusted fries serve as breathers between burger bites.
Dessert is pure play. Revel in the campfire s'mores. With this you can torch skewered marshmallows over an iron crock filled with pink Sterno jellies flickering blue flame. It stinks. But you hold your nose and smear marshmallow goo over milk chocolate-covered graham crackers. It's the perfect nightclub nosh if you're careful not to set your martini on fire.
N9NE doughnuts are equally gimmicky, with a tall, foil-lined carton overflowing with all manner of glazed, speckled and powdered sugar donuts.
A carton of doughnuts. It's the perfect N9NE trope: decent food (and excellent steaks) in a place where you don't want to eat it. What N9NE needs is a drive-up window and runners in Manolo Blahnik roller skates. At least then the menu wouldn't make your ears hurt.
3090 Olive St., 214-720-9901. Open 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $$$$
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