(Grand Rapids, MI) Our wedding anniversary coincides each year with the holiday season, so it's easy to either combine all the festivities or let things slide until a quieter time. Not this year. Instead we get semi-gussied up and strike out for our favorite steak house in Grand Rapids, The Chop House. Would tonight be the first time the restaurant stumbles in the many years we've been frequenting them? Not every eatery can be on their "A" game every time, all the time...
I have not felt well all day, suffering from a head cold that has me hopped up on meds most of the time. However, by the time we get dressed and drive the few blocks to downtown, I'm feeling better. Maybe it's the anticipation of a good meal that boosts my metabolism, or the excitement of celebrating 14 years with my lovely wife. Either way, I am able to smell and taste everything just fine.
The hostess greets us, consults our reservations on our monitor, then takes our coats. As she's hanging up the outerwear, another hostess(?) approaches and asks if we have reservations. A little awkward, but we've come to expect that from most restaurants these days. I am always perplexed about what's happening here, this strange dance in the lobby. Can't they just assign one host or hostess, then find another person to seat us? At any rate, we are led to a far corner booth table a bit removed from everyone, as we'd requested. (Later, the pre-theater crowd fills in, nearly packing the restaurant, which is a good thing to see on a Tuesday night.)
Our waitress arrives. She is friendly and attentive, the prime example of nearly every server we've encountered at The Chop House. Here, it is all about service, with the staff carefully watching and listening. They know, for the price we pay, we expect outstanding attention. Sparkling water arrives (with lime, of course) as we peruse the menu.
Neither of us is starving, so we decide to forego the usual parade of appetizers (the calamari is usually quite good). Instead, I opt for The Wedge, iceberg lettuce with Maytag bleu cheese and smoked applewood bacon. There are some nice sliced Roma tomatoes on the side as well. The lettuce is innocuous—I prefer "weedy" salad—but the creamy, cool bleu cheese makes it comforting and delicious. Our recommended half-bottle of wines arrive shortly thereafter. My chosen Pinot Noir, a 2006 Au Bon Climat "La Bauge Vineyard", is light, bitter with just the right amount of smoke.
For some ungodly reason, I opt for the 11 ounce filet mignon au poivre, rather than my usual 8 ounce. It is huge when it arrives. I knife into the thick cut of meat, admiring the sensuous movement of the seared outer layer as I carve into the buttery flesh, revealing a perfectly prepared medium-rare interior. Once again, I feel confident in proclaiming The Chop House has the best filet mignon in town, and I may have had better in other cities maybe once or twice. I don't know how they get it right every time, but I thank them from the bottom of my stomach. Each forkful is bliss. As expected, I can only finish about 8 ounces; the rest is taken home for a salad the next day.
In lieu of apps, we instead feast on sharable sides. The Baked Three Cheese Macaroni with roasted poblano chiles is creamy, smoky, with just the right amount of crunch on top. Thankfully I eat a few bites of this before trying our second dish: Creamed Corn. It sounds bland, right? It's not. They chop up little bits of jalapeno to mix with the heavy cream and sweet, sweet corn so the result is sweet and slightly hot. No joke, I can't stop eating it. A bite of the macaroni afterward is lost; it is too subtle in the face of the magnificent creamed corn.
I'm stuffed. But, per usual, the server has a secret weapon on the dessert menu: Peppermint Stick Creme Brulee Cheesecake with one piece left that has the Oreo crust (before they switch to graham cracker). It is buttery, creamy and very rich. My only complaint is the peppermint taste might have been stronger. It's there, but played low-key. I'm a big mint guy, though.
As we head back home, satisfied smiles still on our faces, we can only wonder how The Chop House manages to maintain a consistent level of service and quality. It seems so many other restaurants just fail at these simple tasks. Sure, The Chop House may cost a bit more but, in the end, the experience seems so worth it. We'll be back in a few months, when the urge strikes us to be pampered again.
Over the years, Chop House has become our "go to" place for celebrations and we typically indulge three times a year minimum, once for each of our birthdays and a third time for our anniversary. It's become an easy tradition because we're never disappointed. And while we're both confident tonight will be another positive experience, I suspect we're also secretly hoping we do not catch them on an off night.
We are promptly seated in a corner booth as requested and read over the menus, though I already know what I'm ordering. No doubt in my mind I'll be ordering the shrimp cocktail, an 8 ounce filet cooked medium rare and the creamed corn. But our server begins to share tonight's specials and my plan derails when she mentions the beef wellington. Despite vowing to lay off the foie gras this holiday season, her description of a six ounce filet cooked to medium rare topped with mushroom duxelle and a pat of goose liver pate all encrusted in housemade pastry is just too much for me to pass up. I decide to chi-chi up my filet and go wellington.
Our server (after consulting with the sommelier) recomends a half bottle of cabernet sauvignon for me and a half bottle of pinot noir for Jeremy, which in addition to being more affordable than sharing one full bottle, allows us to get each get our favorite style to pair with our steaks. I'm always impressed when the wine suggestions are practical as well as affordable. Throughout the meal, as with all our past visits, the service at Chop House is nothing short of impeccable. The servers are prompt and attentive though never overbearing or intrusive.
My shrimp cocktail is a delight. Each one is mammoth and perfectly cooked, not at all chewy or rubbery. (Have I shared the story of the chef telling me when shrimp are cooked to the shape of a "C" they are "cooked" but "O" means they are "overcooked"?) The shrimp are sweet and buttery like lobster and I briefly consider ordering a second (and possibly third) order for dinner. Who needs steak?
But then the steaks arrive and I know I made a solid choice. The wellington is as spectacular as described. The steak is tender and packed with hearty, beefy flavor. The crust is golden and buttery, while the mushrooms and pate take it all over the top. Normally I pay more attention to the sides at a steak house, but the beef wellington is worthy of a little more consideration.
The sides are meant for sharing. Jeremy orders the poblano macaroni and cheese which is rich and luscious, but lacks any real heat or spice. If it didn't read "poblano" on the menu, I would have never known it was there. The creamed corn on the other had has a nice slow burn on the back end. A few telltale pieces of husk let me know the corn is fresh. This is far and wide the most delicious creamed corn I've ever enjoyed. I don't even want to know the butter or cream content; it doesn't count on your anniversary, right? I decide to layer my creamed corn on my mac 'n cheese for a few creamy, carby, rich bites.
We have no intention of having dessert; in fact, I have chocolate hazelnut croissants fresh from the bakery waiting for us at home. But our server does a top-notch job of describing the seasonal desserts and we both fall hard, Jeremy for the peppermint creme brulee and me for the mascarpone gelato with roasted pears. The gelato is lush and slightly cream cheesy (mascarpone-y?) while the pears are caramelized and still a bit warm from the oven.
Bottom line, I have yet to find a restaurant that can match the consistency and quality of Chop House. You cannot find better steak, ambiance or service. None of it comes cheap, making this a venue for special occasions for most of us. Don't get me wrong—it's worth every penny. And I suspect a fine time could be had sitting at the bar splitting a salad and a few sides with a solid glass of wine. After all, you don't have to order filets and shrimp cocktails! Regardless, Chop House is in a class by itself and worth a visit.
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