Food & Drink

Review: Where’s the beef at Caucus Club?



The recreated Caucus Club, reopened in May by a new owner after a five-year hiatus, is self-consciously retro. It's a vigorous nod to the restaurant's history as a hangout for downtown power brokers, happy to gorge on steaks and lobster tails. Potatoes twice-baked or scalloped, wedge of iceberg, onion soup, creamed spinach, table-side Caesar salad — with few exceptions, the menu sports items that would have been at home on the opening list in 1952. I spotted broccolini, but no kale.

The Club dry-ages its own beef, and servers offer to show you the raw slabs before you order. Names like "Senate Cut" and "Executive Cut" signal the intended audience. The pork chop is titled "Chairman's Reserve."

The dining room is tasteful, with a grand piano, white tablecloths, and navy napkins in big silver-colored rings. But modern standards, or the lack thereof, are accepted: There's no dress code, and I saw male diners in shorts.

Servers have been educated on the Club's history: They wax enthusiastic about Barbra Streisand's appearance there in 1961, at the outset of her career. On Friday and Saturday nights a piano player offers tunes.

But for my money, the Caucus Club has a way to go before it justifies its prices. Appetizers start at $15 and ascend to $28. Entrées come with no sides — just a giant chunk of meat — but you can buy them for $7 to $12. A pound of ribeye chop comes to $89. All this might be OK if the food were sublime, and some of it is.

In that category I place the lobster bisque. Most restaurants who try this classic do a good job, but that of chef Rick Hussey, formerly of Filippa's Wine Barrel in Shelby Township, is stellar, with its finishing fillip of sherry and nutty morsel of lobster.

A caprese appetizer was also more than worthwhile: multi-colored heirloom tomatoes and a pillowy blob of burrata (the thin outer shell is mozzarella, the innards are stretched fresh curds mixed with cream), with a splash of thick, sweet, aged balsamic. If the dab of basil pesto is inauthentic for caprese, it's tasty. Pesto also accompanies the undistinguished opening bread plate, instead of butter — an invitation, along with the generous size of almost all items, to over-indulge.

Onion soup, in contrast, was good but not the knock-out-of-the-park you'd hope for in this classic. The beef broth could have been stronger, the submerged bread less soggy. A Greek avgolemono soup du jour inspired by owner George Sboukis, pale oatmeal in color, was chickeny but not lemony; it needed both elements.

But presumably the high rollers, or high rollers for an evening, who choose the Caucus Club over the many other downtown possibilities, are looking for beef. Me, too. During a recent two months in Argentina, I liked the way everyone — women included — knowledgeably discussed the different cuts with the servers, and ate several at each meal with gusto, no "oh, I shouldn't..."

The Caucus Club shares that sensibility in the sheer size of its offerings, but the three beefs I tried were uneven in quality. (Maybe if I'd gone for the $48 cut instead of the $38...) A 10 oz. filet mignon, served with a salty zip sauce, was good — tall, tender and lean — but not transcendent. Close to a pound of New York strip was pretty tasty but downright tough, and its $4 truffle butter "steak accompaniment" added little.

A huge rare prime rib, however, was super-tender and flavorsome. I could have cut it with a butter knife. A (male) neighboring diner sought my opinion on it, though he didn't look Argentinean. The creamy horseradish sauce alongside was mild enough not to scare off the goyim. A carrots and potatoes side, though, was skimpy, the tri-color carrots interesting but the fried spuds just blah.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment were lukewarm scallops. Granted, the Club is uncomfortably over-air-conditioned, but they shouldn't have cooled off that much between kitchen and table. I thought about returning them for a zap, but feared the cure would be worse than the disease. The barely roasted asparagus that came at the same time were also luke-cool.

I liked the two glasses of wine I permitted myself, a mineraly Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and a bold Malbec blend from Argentina (though the latter broke Caucus rules on portion size).

Given that the Club aspires to be the scene of power lunches, perhaps I should have tried the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. menu. A reduced list of entrées competes with luxury sandwiches like a salmon club, or a traditional Reuben. Modernity creeps in to the extent of some sriracha in the mayo.

Here's some advice no one will follow, and that will make you no friends on the staff: If you want to eat at the Caucus Club —and plenty of people did on the nights I was there — go with a friend but order just one serving of appetizer, entrée, side. Share everything. You'll both be full, the meal will be decent, and the cost will be proportionate to the quality.

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