Mortons, New York City

The days of rough-hewn, slightly faded-around-the-edges steakhouses in the Big Apple are over. The polished, deep-red mahogany paneling, thick carpeting and plush, leather-backed banquettes at the new Mortons of Chicago here speak of high-class elegance, and the soft wall lighting and overhead, modern-style chandeliers lend a pleasant, clublike atmosphere. The restaurant is filled noon and night, and it's exactly the kind of place where you don't mind waiting--even if your lunch guest is 45 minutes late.

Ambience is one thing; however, food is another. Mortons doesn't miss on the culinary side either. This is a straightforward, concise meat-and-potatoes menu, with the requisite nods to chicken and fish for today's modern-diet fans. Although the restaurant's standard show-and-tell is often dispensed with at lunch for businessmen eating on the clock, it's worth a request to your waitress. She'll roll up a cart covered with raw meat and present each cut for your inspection; get ready for the double porterhouse: 48 ounces of beef, which the restaurant recommends you share with a friend. "But people do eat the whole thing," the waitress says. And then there is the lobster--sold in three-to-five-pound sizes at up to $16 a pound--which on a recent visit was large enough to suggest you would lose an underwater fight with it.

The meat is simply some of the best in New York, a town already known for great steaks. A porterhouse--a bone-in piece of meat that usually produces a New York strip and Filet Mignon when off the bone--tastes of the 14 to 21 days of dry aging that Mortons gives its USDA Prime. There's no skimping on size; it was at least one pound. The tender fillet part almost falls off the bone, and the strip side has a pleasing firmness that is filled with flavor. The non-beef entrées are dazzling, too. A roast chicken, doused with an oregano-lemon sauce, is actually a split whole chicken grilled to perfection. And the swordfish steak covers an entire plate.

Appetizers can also provide a meal in themselves, although no self-respecting steak eater would ever admit it. The salads are big and fresh; a creamy blue-cheese dressing is the house specialty. A lump crabmeat plate was succulent. Each table is given a freshly baked loaf of bread. However, like many New York steakhouses, this is an à la carte menu, so if you want potatoes or a vegetable with your dinner, you must order them, too. Nor is dessert forgotten. Fresh strawberries and raspberries top the list, but get to the New York cheesecake or pecan pie, and you'll truly re-create a great steakhouse meal.

Michael Hall, who oversees the wine list, says it is still evolving. But there's plenty on it for wine lovers. California Cabernet is well represented: Silver Oak, 1989, $75; Opus One, 1984, $150 and B.V. Georges de la Tour, 1976, $160. Hall admits his Bordeaux and Burgundy selections need some work; nonetheless, you can find a 1982 Château Margaux, $240; a 1985 Château Mouton-Rothschild, $188; a 1982 Château Lafite-Rothschild, $280 and Château Petrus, 1979, $575. There are also top red Burgundies.

White wines are well represented but are not a major part of the list. There is a full range of Chardonnay, and French Burgundy includes a Louis Latour, Corton-Charlemagne, 1990, $78 and Etienne Sauzet, Puligny-Montrachet, "Combettes," 1991, $153.

Best of all, this is a seriously cigar-friendly restaurant. Ask for a humidor, and the waitress says, "of course, sir. It will be right here." A beautiful burl humidor filled with Davidoff cigars arrives within seconds. A question about where you can smoke prompts one maître d' to say, "of course, almost anywhere." In practical terms, that means you may smoke at any table in the dining room's smoking section, which occupies the majority of the restaurant. There is also a bar where smoking is permitted. And the restaurant has inaugurated cigar dinners; the first one, in March, paired single malt Scotches with cigars and a four-course meal created around a porterhouse steak.

Mortons has brought a new level of elegance to the steakhouse world of New York City. It's a great place to enjoy a delicious steak, sit back in a comfortable setting and pick out your favorite cigar for a relaxed smoke.

-- Gordon Mott

551 Fifth Avenue (entrance on 45th street)
Phone: (212) 972-3315
Lunch/Dinner: à la carte, $60-65 per person without wine