For an NBA player, stress is part of the game.
For a chef “opening a restaurant with Michael Jordan’s name on it in Chicago on Michigan Avenue in an iconic hotel,” big-time stress is also part of the game, James O’Donnell says.
That’s precisely the situation the executive chef faced when he launched Michael Jordan’s Steak House in August at Chicago’s historic Intercontinental Hotel. And although the high-end Mag Mile eatery has drawn crowds and terrific reviews since its debut, “the pressure’s not off,” says O’Donnell, who also opened the steak house’s original locations in New York and Connecticut.
Inspirational MJ quotes are part of the restaurant’s décor. And O’Donnell is motivated by one in particular: “I listened, I was aware of my success, but I never stopped trying to get better.”
O’Donnell is determined to “build on the success of the other [Michael Jordan’s],” while making the Chicago location stand out in the crowd in the city’s cluttered — and still growing — steak house scene, he says.
He’s become a locavore for one, and the eatery’s emphasis is on “showcasing local and artisanal ingredients whenever possible.
“There are so many great products within a 100 mile radius of here,” O’Donnell says. “We keep looking for whatever we can find that’s done here.”
So although the restaurant can’t source its USDA prime dry-aged beef in the Midwest, its lamb, for example, comes from Wisconsin’s Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms. And produce and other ingredients, such as grits, come from mostly Midwestern farmers and purveyors.
O’Donnell also wants to move away from traditional steak house culinary conventions by lightening up dishes and scaling back portions.
“We’re not following the old steak house clichés — the giant baked potatoes or the big cauldrons of creamed spinach that are just there to fill you up.
“We try not to give you those gargantuan portions that are classic in steak house fare.”
Yes, there’s a 28-ounce bone-in prime rib eye or the Jordan-referencing signature 23 -Layer Chocolate Cake for those who want to live large. And frankly, there are no “ladies who lunch”-sized dishes; everything is amply, albeit not gargantuanly portioned.
O’Donnell features several appealing steak alternatives — salmon, scallops, chicken, tuna — for those who prefer to skip the red meat. And he presents some terrific veggie sides, served in cute little cast-iron pots. He even offers vitamin-packed creamed fresh kale as an alternative to the traditional spinach he mocks.
“Kale is definitely better for you than the frozen, chopped spinach other steak houses use,” he says.
For all this healthy talk, “the darling of the menu” is the signature garlic bread starter ($7), one of the few dishes O’Donnell brought along with him from the original Michael Jordan’s Steak House.
Steak house-loving friends Lisa and DJ, The Husband and I started our night with a complimentary order of the crunchy garlic bread “logs,” which are drizzled tableside with artisanal blue cheese fondue. Mildly pungent, the gooey cheese — we agreed — “was the perfect blue cheese for people who don’t love blue cheese.”
The Husband let me take a few dips into his puréed lobster-celery root bisque ($13), where I was easily able to find precious nuggets of chewy lobster. And Lisa and I shared an iceberg lettuce wedge ($10) with smoked blue cheese and peppery chunks of Nueske’s bacon. The wedge is an updated spin on classic iceberg salad — and we specially requested O’Donnell’s house-made herbaceous Green Goddess dressing.
As we moved into entrées, surprisingly, only one of us ordered steak. Although the Asian-sauced MJ’s 16-ounce prime Delmonico ($47) is the restaurant’s top seller, DJ went with a simply seasoned 20-ounce Kansas City strip ($50). As it should be, the beef was firm, juicy and tender.
Lisa selected the smoked free-range chicken ($26) with root vegetable hash and rich chicken jus, while The Husband chose seared rare tuna ($35) dressed with a lemony olive oil vinaigrette and served over three Mediterranean tapenades: black olive; green olive and tomato.
I scored big with Pinn-Oak Ridge roasted lamb chops ($41), another top seller, according to O’Donnell. Rubbed with spicy white harissa and encrusted in merguez sausage, the lamb boasts a number of flavors including mint, orange, garlic and chili. A cooling house-made yogurt is there to temper the heat.
“The North African flavors add depth of flavor,” O’Donnell says. Agreed.
Although several entrées come with accompaniments, sides should not be missed. The mashed potato trio ($14) was an imaginative mix of sweet and savory: rich lobster-chive; sweet potato-marshmallow; and feisty horseradish-cheddar. Trying our hardest to stay away from tempting mac ‘n’ cheese, we also sampled buttery-beefy roasted mushrooms ($7) with black garlic and white soy mushroom jus, as well as crisp broccoli rabe ($7) emboldened with Calabrian chiles, garlic and olive oil.
Our wise choices left us with room for desserts. Of course, we had to try the 23-Layer Chocolate Cake ($14), which O’Donnell describes as “our one ode to the indulgent steak house dish.” Indeed gargantuanly portioned, the dense, fudgy espresso-tinged cake could have easily been split 23 ways. Served with tart grapefruit segments, tangy Key Lime Bombe ($9) with its graham cracker cake bottom, yuzu curd center and airy meringue top provided a nice complement to the over-the-top cake.
So what’s the 411 on #23? What does he order when he drops by his namesake restaurant? O’Donnell played it conservatively, only offering up MJ’s sometime penchant for the bone-in filet with smoked sea salt. (Jordan was unavailable for comment.)
“Michael’s like everybody else,” he says. “He’ll pick something he likes and he’ll go for it.”
Michael Jordan’s Steak House – Chicago
505 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60611