Morton's brings on the beef Restaurant: The newcomer at the Inner Harbor offers excellent food -- for a price -- and a memorable presentation.

October 12, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

What makes Morton's, Baltimore's newest steakhouse, unique -- and believe me, we don't use that word lightly at The Sun -- is the menu presentation.

That's what our waitress called it, as in "I'll be right back with the menu presentation." I thought she meant she was going to hand us large bound volumes and recite the specials of the evening.

Not at all. After we had ordered drinks and settled into the comfortable if somewhat generic dining room, our waitress wheeled up a cart filled with raw food, including a lot of raw beef. More raw beef than you might want to look at if you weren't a butcher.

All of it was shrink-wrapped, some of it shrink-wrapped on plates with sprigs of parsley. Our waitress held up each plate of raw beef or seafood, from the strip sirloin to the farm-raised salmon, as if it were a box of detergent in a TV commercial, while she explained the virtues of the cut and the method of preparation. The beef that was shrink-wrapped without a plate, like the double filet mignon, she simply picked up and held out for leisurely perusal. A whole lobster was presented to us as you might show off a fine pet.

zTC When she got to the beefsteak tomato, she held that out, too (the kitchen will slice it and serve it with blue cheese dressing, she told us), and the half a head of broccoli (it comes steamed with hollandaise) and the piece de resistance, a raw potato the size of Idaho.

The three of us stared at it with a dazed fascination -- what are we doing here looking at a giant potato? -- while she explained that we could get it baked or mashed or fixed a la Lyonnaise. All of the food is priced separately, so I suppose you might want to see -- say -- just how many asparagus spears you'll be getting for your $6.95. But I'm not sure why you have to see the potato.

After she wheeled the cart away, the waitress presented us with a teeny-weeny menu, about the size of the potato, with very large prices. A porterhouse steak, for instance, is $29.95. If you want that baked potato on the side, it'll cost you another $4.25.

But no one eating here is concerned about money. They are all on expense accounts or with dates who say, "Order what you like. Money is no object."

So who cares what it costs when you get 24 ounces of prime porterhouse that's this good -- expertly grilled so it's pink, juicy and flavorful, charred on the outside with a crusty edge of fat. Or a butter-tender double filet mignon with a tarragon-infused bearnaise. Or a rosy slab of prime rib, the juices gently seasoned, which you can almost cut with the proverbial fork.

Seafood at Morton's is equally good. Pink and white shrimp with just a dusting of crumbs to give a bit of texture come with a silky beurre blanc. You can have a half order of these for a first course. Scallops are fat and cooked just long enough. (I'd like the fine, smoky bacon they've been wrapped in to be cooked a bit more.) Fiery apricot chutney adds lots of zing.

For a somewhat different first course you could get the plate of sauteed portobello, shiitake and cremini mushrooms. It wasn't very pretty, but the mushrooms are well-nigh irresistible: hot, buttery, garlicky and wonderfully textured. You could also have the mushrooms as a side dish with your steak, or perfectly cooked broccoli, or potatoes Lyonnaise -- the potatoes sauteed with chopped onion and seasoned beautifully. Only the house salad with chopped egg and a mayonnaisey dressing was less than stellar.

While you're ordering dinner, order dessert. That way one of the delicate individual souffles (lemon, perhaps, or Grand Marnier) will be ready when you're ready. Even better is the hot chocolate Godiva cake, baked to order with a molten chocolate center.

In other words, unlike some steakhouses, Morton's can do more than just cook great prime beef. The wine list is extensive and quite pricey -- no surprise there -- with lots of American reds. The service is excellent. (Except for our waitress asking us, "Do you want bottled water, sparkling water or tap water." You could practically taste the microbes and chemicals. Try saying "Just bring me a glass of water" after that.)

Morton's biggest problem is the setting, assuming you don't mind looking at a lot of raw beef. It's a pleasant enough dining room; but when you're spending this kind of money, you might want a decor that's more luxurious -- or at least something with a little more pizazz.

Morton's of Chicago

Where: Sheraton Inner Harbor, 300 S. Charles St.

Hours: Open every night for dinner Prices:

Appetizers, $5.25-$9.95; entrees, $17.95-$29.95; major credit cards

Call: 410-547-8255.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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