When I choose a steakhouse for dinner, I have two expectations: big beef and big bucks. Since an excellent steak can be had in many local spots, when I choose a steakhouse, I'm making a point. I'm showing how much I value someone's company, renting a stage where we may engage in the fantasy that on this night, money is no object.
Other patrons of Morton's, the steakhouse that replaced E.B. Green's in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo hotel, have their own motivations. Maybe they're staying in the hotel, or don't sweat prices due to robust personal finances.
This review is for the other readers, who meter out nights at steakhouses like diamond dealers weigh out stones. To them I say: Morton's delivers, on both the big beef, and the big bill. In the end, whether it makes you happy may depend on how you feel about smoke and mirrors.
The lights were low, the seats cozy. Server performances and special effects were eye-catching. More than most high-end places, at Morton's dining is theater.
Free with your ticket: a small round loaf of eggy-sweet onion bread, delivered warm to the table with whipped butter. Speckled with caramelized onion flakes, it was a pillowy delight.
Being recognized by the staff brought a complimentary shrimp cocktail appetizer. Its approach, trailing a cloud like a Civil War locomotive, drew eyes across the room. Five extra-jumbo shrimp were wreathed in fog billowing from bubbling dry ice hidden underneath, crowning a mound of ice festooned with seaweed.
With properly horseradish-laced cocktail sauce, it was the most dramatic shrimp cocktail in town. It should have been, at $26. An icy, classic Hendricks martini with blue cheese olives ($14) made a perfect foil.
Crabmeat cocktail ($22) was another act of seafood worship, with prune-sized chunks of crabmeat piled in a tower above crushed ice, with grilled lemon, aioli and cocktail sauce.
With steak tacos ($17), the momentum slipped. Two tacos held beef on doubled flour tortillas, throwing off the meat-to-tortilla ratio. The tender meat was braised and shredded, not sliced. Avocado slices, shot through with brown veins, were discarded.
An ahi tuna tower ($21) packed layers of cubed raw tuna and chunks of ripe avocado atop a foundation of crushed tortilla chips, a downmarket move that evoked the bottom of a bag of Tostitos. Lovely fish deserved better than anemic cubed tomato and crunchy mango dice as ensemble mates.
Baked escargot ($15) were six snails in a custom cast-iron-dish, garlicky, buttery bites, under puff pastry toques. Half were browned, half weren't. When you're at the theater, scenery matters. Lobster bisque ($18) looked luxe, a wide bowl of creamy shellfish essence topped with shreds of lobster. But its delicate whisper of sweetness drowned out by a shout of sherry.
Morton's slogan is "The Best Steak Anywhere," and I am happy to report that the beef was first-class. The 48-ounce porterhouse for two ($129), the most expensive steak in Buffalo, was cooked to precision, abundant, tender beef served sliced in a pool of its juices. A bath in foie gras cognac butter ($7) gilded this tender lily admirably.
A 10-ounce piece of Idaho Wagyu ($79) was sheer luxury, each morsel rich enough to prompt a moment of contemplation. A custom sauce ($7) built on Wagyu fat sounded enticing, but included liquid smoke. A bite of the finest beef, bathed in a sauce that reminded me of generic artificially flavored "bacon" bits, was a downer.
Miso-marinated sea bass ($49) was a well-cooked piece of fish with a savory caramel glaze, flaky and moist, served over bright bok choy. My only wish was for a bowl of white rice to soak up some of the intensely salty sauce.
Sides of various potato preparations ($14) were available, including hash browns and twice-baked au gratin potatoes. Order the hash browns and an assistant toting vats of sour cream, butter and bacon asks which you'd prefer on top. To which the only sensible answer is: yes. That loaded crispy potato Frisbee was overkill, in the best way. Au gratin potatoes were cubed baked potatoes in an agreeably well-crusted cheesy matrix.
Onion rings, ($14) gleefully crunchy panko-crusted hoops, hit the spot. Creamed spinach ($14) was the best I've had, tasting of green spinach and fresh cream, not killed with cheese like so many versions. Brussels sprouts with bacon ($14) were more steamed that seared, ending up less browned than I prefer.
For dessert we went for a showstopping finale. Both hot chocolate cake ($16) and lemon soufflé for two ($19.50) took 30 minutes to prepare, but that was fine with me, because walking at that point seemed unreasonable.
Both desserts were spot-on, the chocolate number unleashing a cascade of chocolate as it was cut, an utterly delicious cliché. The soufflé was another delight, risen high over its dish and light as a cloud. Scooped out by the server and dressed with vibrant lemon sauce, it was a classy coda.
Service was smart and smooth throughout, with the table crumbed between courses, and diners who left the table returning to folded napkins. There were star turns at this table, but the unevenness in the supporting cast felt like paying Broadway prices for an off-Broadway production. At a steakhouse, that cuts to the bone.
Morton's The Steakhouse – 7 plates (out of 10)
Location: 2 Fountain Plaza (856-0157)
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily
Prices: appetizers, $15-$23; steaks and chops, $38-$129; other entrees, $30-$49.
Parking: $5 valet, street
Wheelchair accessible: yes
Gluten-free: many choices, including steaks and seafood.
*Related: Last week's dining review, on House of Hummus Elmwood: