The newest entrant to Chicago's steakhouse scene is Aja Steak in the edgy Hotel Dana, which is in the River North area of Chicago. This definitely is not your father's steakhouse, it is very modern, with unpainted concrete and exposed ductwork and no leather booths. Even though there are many other things (like sushi) on the menu here besides steak, we thought the steak was among the best we've had.
We started with, for a change of pace, mixed drinks rather than wine. Lisa had an almond pear blossom, which had amaretto and pear absolut and a slice of pear. It really tasted like almonds and pears and was not overly strong, so Lisa liked it a lot and ordered a second. Steve had the sake sangria, which really tasted just like regular sangria and was quite good. The first food was a kimchee amuse bouche, which basically was spicy cabbage and sesame cucumbers. We both loved the cucumbers and found the cabbage a bit too spicy. On the other hand, it is the only time either of us can recall eating cabbage in our adult lives (or, for Steve, at any time).
For appetizers, we split the beef carpaccio and the chicken skewers (which had a fancy name but were still skewers). Both were excellent. The carpaccio was a little different from what we're used to, as it tasted almost smoked, but it had good flavor and was served with some crunchy stuff that set it off well. The chicken on the skewers was very tender, juicy and tasty.
Our salads were not so good. Steve's wedge was the oddest he's had, as it was topped with some sort of meat that could have been pork or beef and, in any event, was not too good, the lettuce was fairly wilted and drowned in indeterminate vile dressing. Obviously, it wasn't one of his favorites. Lisa's pear and gorgonzola was a bit better; but, for her taste, did not have enough gorgonzola and had too much vinegar flavor in the dressing.
For a change, the best part of this steakhouse was actually the steak. We split the porterhouse for two. It was cooked a perfect medium rare and had enough charcoal for Steve and not too much for Lisa. We really liked the taste of both the New York side and the filet side, as both were full of flavor. This dish alone made us want to come back (preferably to sit outside if we can avoid the bugs and if the weather actually ever gets warm).
We weren't that hungry, having eaten so much steak, so we decided to share the cheese plate rather than getting traditional desserts. There were three cheeses, accompanied by various fruits and nuts and lots of toast. The first cheese, which seemed to be a light colored cheddar, tasted store bought and not particularly interesting. The second, which may have been a goat cheese, as it was creamy, had a nice flavor, and we both enjoyed it. The bleu cheese was okay, and not too strong for Lisa, but it was not among the best that Steve has had (and he is a great fan of bleu cheese). When we go back, we probably will try desserts instead, and skip the salads.
The bathrooms were both very clean and nice, with attractive fixtures and floors, and the fancy new high powered hand dryers. However, the faucets were difficult to turn on and required almost a full turn to shut off (think of those germs -- and no towels to use for the shut off).
Dinner for two with 3 mixed drinks but one shared dessert was $260, which sounds expensive, but was, in our view, worth it for the steak alone. The restaurant would have rated higher if any of its other dishes were equally inspired.
One tip if you want a quiet dinner, go early, because the restaurant becomes very noisy as it fills up, which happened about 7:45 on a Friday night.
Our ratings for Aja Steak, 660 N. State, Chicago, Illinois:
7.5 of 10 Steak Knives; 2.5 of 3 Bathroom Brushes