I’ve always regarded steakhouses as the dinosaurs of the culinary world: lumbering behemoths with primitive menus whose appeal lay more in brute strength than in careful refinement. But could it be that these restaurants are more variegated and complex than I thought? To investigate this question, I explored a sampling of downtown steakhouses – enthusiastically, I might add – and the short answer is a resounding “yes.”

My journey began at Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse with the Steakhouse Shrimp Boil. A collection of shrimp fanned around a slice of fried red tomato, the spice from the boil underscored and worked with both the rémoulade and cocktail sauces. In the Escargot Orleans, tender snails were immersed in a garlic-infused sauce studded with a rough dice of bacon and mushrooms, while fennel added a pleasantly dissonant note to the dish.

If I ever found myself near an unattended carving station at a wedding reception, I’d walk away with something like Dickie Brennan’s 12-ounce Prime Rib. I didn’t taste the advertised “hand-rubbing of Creole seasonings,” but that was fine as the meat itself was extremely flavorful and didn’t need any help. For those who want a little more snap, it’s served with fresh horseradish sauce on the side. The House Filet, a fork-tender cross-section of beef backstrap, is nested atop a busy but fantastic garnish of creamed spinach, tiny fried oysters and Pontalba-style potatoes. Drizzled with béarnaise sauce, its crust was fantastic.

As you would expect in a steakhouse – especially a steakhouse owned by the Brennan family – the wine list is exhaustive and is supplemented by a fine selection of cigars and after-dinner drinks. Service was excellent, especially considering that the restaurant was operating near full capacity and still running smoothly; no small praise in the current staffing environment. Courses were well paced and I never felt unattended.

While the menu at Dickie Brennan’s reflects its New Orleans heritage, the Besh Steakhouse celebrates it. In lieu of dark paneling and conservative tones, the soaring space hints at irreverence while maintaining its dignity. “I wanted to do something that had a fun and funky Louisiana flair to it; something a little less stuffy than the old boardroom-type steakhouses,” said Chef John Besh about his Harrah’s Casino outpost.

Most steakhouses offer the à la carte routine of selecting your cut, specifying how you want it cooked, then picking a couple of sides. Besh’s menu differentiates itself by the nature of its composed dishes. An appetizer of Louisiana Seafood “3 Ways” was composed of crabmeat ravigote, two enormous, boiled shrimp, and a couple of oysters on the half shell in a mignonette dressing. All were very good, especially the ravigote, which put the delicate crabmeat ahead of the sauce. But if you want to get decadent, go with the barbecue shrimp. The rich sauce that coats the peeled shrimp combines notes of citrus and vanilla, which tempers its heat. This dish boasts more flavor than the traditional “peel and eat” preparation, and comes without the mess.

For the main course, the 30-day-aged New York Strip is the perfect choice. The aging added much tenderness to the cut of meat. Topped with a fat cube of blue cheese butter, it was flanked on one side by a marrow bone and on the other by a stack of three enormous Turbo-Dog battered onion rings. The char provided some bite up front, and the demi-glace upon which the steak rested softened it out down the stretch.

 Meal service was attentive, well paced and the server fielded questions with ease, offering suggestions regarding the menu that were sincere and informed rather than rote.

Of the places I visited, Morton’s The Steakhouse was the most representative of the genre. A conservatively-appointed warren of cream-colored rooms with rich wood paneling, this is what typically comes to mind when one thinks “steakhouse.” The clubby atmosphere and cadre of Saints players passing through on their way to a private dining chamber reinforced this impression.

After being seated, our server came out with a trolley showcasing many of the menu items. A platter of raw steaks showed off the size and type of the cuts. Fair enough: this is arguably useful information. A live, but cranky Maine lobster was hoisted off a plate for exhibition. It was, indeed, an impressive lobster. But when our server next held aloft a raw potato, stating that this was a representative potato, well, that was just kind of weird.

In the Colossal Shrimp Alexander, three lightly-breaded shrimp – colossal as advertised – were served up in a simple beurre blanc sauce. The bacon-wrapped scallops made for a good appetizer, with the accompanying apricot chutney contributing dimensions of fruit and spice, with cracked black pepper ratcheting up the heat.

Steak-wise, the Chicago-Style Bone-In Ribeye was well-marbled and the flavor was good. The filet mignon was respectable, and is available in single or double-cut versions to accommodate a range of appetites. Paired with a broiled Australian lobster tail, this made for a nice, if expensive, surf and turf. For sides, thick stalks of jumbo asparagus were cooked properly, their bright-green color shocked in, though I’m partial to the thinner variety. But this is a steakhouse, and the operative words are obviously “big,” “jumbo,” and, as in the case of the shrimp, “colossal.”

As expected, the wine list is comprehensive and offers many selections by the glass, including a nice Belle Glos pinot noir. Service was attentive and pleasant, though I get the feeling our server had to push through a Morton’s-approved checklist of things to say before we could actually converse.

As I learned from Jurassic Park, dinosaurs are not as simple as they seem, and neither are steakhouses. These are not unsophisticated places just slinging slabs of meat. Dickie Brennan’s underscores the heritage and vitality of New Orleans: a successful offshoot of an established, local brand. Morton’s has its place as well, lending its national reputation to the collection of shiny upscale Shops at Canal Place. And though I came away from the Besh Steakhouse with the impression that it was more of an innovative restaurant with a focus on steaks rather than a steakhouse proper, when it comes to chefs looking to shape the future of creative dining here in New Orleans, John Besh is near the top of the list.

Take a Bite!
Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse
716 Iberville St.

Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s Casino
365 Canal St. #900

Morton’s The Steakhouse
365 Canal St. #220

With this issue we welcome Jay Forman as our new Dining and Wine Editor. Forman has written extensively about the local dining scene including for our sister publication, St. Charles Avenue, and for Louisiana Cookin’ Magazine. Lorin Gaudin, who writes our Restaurant Insider column, continues, as does Dale Curry who writes our Food column. Todd A. Price, who previously wrote the Table Talk column, and whose feature story on “edible schoolyards” appears in this issue (pg. 54) has moved on to pursue other interests. We wish him well. With Forman’s arrival we continue our objective of providing the strongest overall food coverage in the city.

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