Phil Vettel reviews GT Prime

CHICAGO -- GT Prime is either the steakhouse you will avoid or the steakhouse you've been waiting for.

Reinventing the American steakhouse has been something of a cottage industry in the last few years. RPM Steak, Swift & Sons, Maple & Ash and others have upgraded and tweaked the steakhouse experience with contemporary cocktail offerings, chef-driven side dishes and non-beef entrees.

Giuseppe Tentori, whose monogram also graces the ever-reliable GT Fish & Oyster, has taken an even bolder approach. GT Prime turns its back on so many steakhouse conventions that "conspicuous by absence" barely covers it.

There is no raw bar, no plateaux de fruits de mer. No shrimp cocktail. There are three seafood entrees, including a very good, very simple, citrus-kissed branzino, but no lobster. (This from a chef who's pretty comfortable around seafood).

And instead of massive slabs of bone-in meat, GT Prime offers beef, lamb, buffalo and venison in precisely trimmed, boneless slices, 4 or 8 ounces at a time and all medium-rare.

"So many (steakhouses) believe bigger is better," Tentori said. "A 36-ounce rib-eye, a million-dollar baked potato — as an individual, you can't eat that by yourself; you wind up taking it home. And ... here (the meat) is all prime cut — no fat, no bone, all meat."

The star dish is the Carnivore, consisting of filet, Imperial wagyu (an American product), rib-eye and venison, each in a four-ounce portion and sliced so thin — six or seven slices per cut — that one barely needs a knife to eat them. At first glance, it doesn't look like a very large dish. But 16 ounces of pure meat is a lot. My companion and I attacked the platter with gusto, but, 15 or so minutes later, we called for the doggie bag, defeated.

The other available cuts are lamb loin, bison tenderloin and skirt steak, and you can mix and match 4- or 8-ounce portions as you will. The ability to match 4 ounces of lamb to 8 ounces of rib-eye, or to augment beef tenderloin with a try-it-you'll-like-it bit of venison is a fine idea.

And if your heart is set on a full, unsliced slab of beef, you have but to ask. You probably can get mashed potatoes, too, if you call ahead.

Flanking the main entrees (literally; mains are printed in the middle of the menu, vegetables and appetizers are on either side) are various hot and cold starters. On the cold side, there is the pheasant terrine, layered with foie gras and shiitake mushrooms over salsify puree, perked up by tart pomegranate and pickled mustard seeds. This should not be missed.

Some, not all, will appreciate the chicken-liver mousse. "I love chicken-liver mousse, but chefs use way too much liver, and sometimes it's too chunky," said Tentori. Neither is the problem with this mousse, which is mild, prettily presented with radishes, onions and celery ribbons, and so soft in texture one could almost eat it with a straw. It's lovely, really, and easily spread on excellent toasted sourdough (from Publican Quality Bread), but some will find it too soft.

Warmer options include bone marrow, with a light onion marmalade and more of that good sourdough; sliced duck, aged for a week and presented with pureed lentils and matsutake mushrooms; and the GT mac & cheese (made with orecchiette and pork belly), an always-reliable dish imported from Tentori's other restaurant.

More substantial dishes — not quite entrees, unless you're eating light — include the gnocchi Genovese, notable for the nut-free basil pesto that adds vibrant color and vegetal notes, and the accompanying sweetbread "croutons," deep-fried bites that Tentori calls "chicken nuggets for adults." The crispy chicken thigh is like a baby paella, served in a cast-iron pot with saffron rice, root vegetables and thick-sliced trumpet mushrooms.

Pastry chef Andrea Cote stays away from the oversize gut-buster desserts in which steakhouses too often traffic. Not that there's any lack of calories in the s'mores ice cream cake, which hides chocolate sorbet within chocolate cake with a toasted-marshmallow crown, but there are also the easily shared doughnuts with brown-sugar streusel, with coffee creme anglaise for dipping. The apple cake, a vertical tower, is built with so many elements — discs of squash mousse, apple sorbet, creme fraiche ice cream and white-chocolate tuile — it's like playing edible Jenga.

There's a short and sweet wine list, each offering available in 3- or 6-ounce pours (and by-the-bottle, of course), and excellent cocktails, including a signature Negroni that's first rate and the Smoking Gun, a distinctively aromatic whiskey drink.

Seating is in the bright and lively front room, which also houses the bar and open kitchen (another steakhouse novelty); and in the darker back room, its walls covered in cedar siding and hung with dramatically lit, oversize paintings of artfully composed raw ingredients — octopus, veal heart, king crab — that appear on the menu in one form or another. A 16-seat private-dining space is dubbed the Owl Room, for its bird's-eye view (via glass walls) of the kitchen activity below.