Gibson’s Steakhouse, Rosemont, IL

Dinner last night at Gibson’s Steakhouse was a classic, grownup evening out. Our 7:30 pm reservation had us entering into a room packed to the rafters with diners and waiters and busboys. We wended our way through the closely spaced tables to the somewhat less crowded, enclosed porch that runs along the outside of the restaurant. Tucked into a corner, we had a great vantage point for viewing the scene without being stuck in the middle of the traffic flow. It was just the first of many lucky breaks we had in our night. The sum of these, added into the Gibson’s experience, made for a truly memorable evening.

The room has the look of an old school steakhouse, through and through. Rich, dark woods, lots of low-wattage, indirect lighting and row upon row of celebrity headshots (“Loved the steak! All my best, Don Rickles”) work to make the place feel like it’s been there forever. The fact that it actually exists in a suburban convention center hotel needs to be overcome. Once you are ensconced in your seat with a martini in front of you and a whie-coated waiter at your elbow, it’s easy to lose yourself in the fantasy.

The tables are topped with two tablecloths, an open, black-and-white plaid overlaid with traditional white. Small, shaded lamps and a shaker of Gibson’s private label Seasoned Salt stand sentinel at table’s edge. Dark wood blinds at the window added to the supper club feel. Plain white napkins and no nonsense flatware complete the scene. No flowers and no frou-frou: we are here for steak.

Our server was clearly a veteran of many years on the job. She was personable, warm and friendly while maintaining a calm, professional aspect at all times. She made us feel that we were the only table she was waiting on, or at least the only one she really cared about. She used our first interaction to not only get our drink orders, but to gauge our intentions for the evening. Were we in a hurry? Was our appointment together for business or pleasure? Were we just going to order, eat and leave, or were we in it for the long haul? She figured out right away that we planned on making a night of it, that we had no further agenda than the menus we had in front of us.

The menu offers very few surprises. The appetizers are the typical roster: oysters, shrimp or lobster cocktail, an avocado stuffed with crabmeat, chopped chicken liver and home cured salmon. There are steaks, about a dozen of them. A variety of fish entrees, crab legs and lobster tails, pork or lamb or veal chops, a whole roasted chicken and a few sandwiches round out the choices. The classic sides include the biggest twice-baked potato we’d ever seen; sauteed or creamed spinach; broccoli or asparagus with hollandaise; mashed or hash brown potatoes; and sauteed mushrooms. This is not an adventurous menu…but who comes to a steakhouse for adventure?

We ordered martinis all around and worked on a game plan for our meal. While we were working things out, our server came by with a platter of raw steaks to explain our options. She explained about the different cuts, the various sizes and which were her favorites. We discussed with her what we wanted to eat and she made recommendations to help us out. We ended up with a perfect mix of steak, seafood and sides.

After an appropriate interval, the starters arrived, Six briny fresh Delaware Bay oysters, presented in a pewter seashell, beached on a bed of ice, sang the song of the sea. A perfectly ripe avocado half came brimming with jumbo lump crabmeat. Spicy lobster cocktail contained perfectly sweet, perfectly cooked chunks of claw and tail meat resting on a thick slab of tomato. Even a simple salad of slice beefsteak tomato and Vidalia onion, topped with chunks of blue cheese, did not disappoint. We plowed right through these plates, ordered a second round of cocktails and settled in to wait for our steaks.

The beef here is USDA Prime, aged for 35 days and cooked in an infrared broiler at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. This means every cut comes out with a beautiful char crust on the outside, even when it’s ordered rare. There are no pale, wan steaks here. Three of us ordered W.R.’s Chicago cut, which translates to a bone-in ribeye. Clocking in at 19 ounces, this is one serious piece of beef. We ordered it rare, medium rare and medium and it came out cooked three distinct ways, exactly matching the descriptions our server had given us. We were thrilled with these. They were tender and packed with beefy goodness. An order of sauteed filet medallions, served with broccoli, was also a winner. Bowls of grated horseradish and creamy horseradish sauce were all we needed to complete the picture. Except for the sides!

The side dishes here almost stole the show. With the exception of a dish of peeled asparagus with hollandaise that was merely delicious, the rest of them rocked. The double baked potato easily weighed a pound and a half. It was creamy, savory and molten with cheddar. An innocuous looking bowl of creamed spinach ended up being one of our favorites of the night. The best of all was an oval dish of hash browns. These had been sauteed to a golden turn on a griddle and then baked in their porcelain vessel until they were crispy and crunchy and exploding with flavor. We fought over the last of these, wishing we had ordered two dishes.

While we were plowing through our steaks, we saw an absolutely enormous dessert sail by. We flagged down our server, who told us that this was their special chocolate cake. She also told us what we had seen was the last piece in the house. She recommended the strawberry shortcake and we asked her to set one aside for us. After finishing what we could of our entrees, we had the leftovers packed to go and sat back for a rest. The shortcake arrived soon there after. The biscuit itself was a perfect mix of textures and flavors. There were crunchy edges; a tender center that soaked up all the strawberry juices; just enough sweetness to let you know it was dessert; even a hint of salt to make it interesting. There was a massive pile of strawberries involved, too, some between the layers and the rest ladled over the top. A crown of whipped cream adorned the peak. Altogether, this was the size of an eight inch, double layer cake. Remarkably, we managed to completely decimate it.

We had spent some three hours at the table. We had gotten to know our server pretty well. Turns out she grew up just a short hop from one our fellow diners. We were completely stuffed and still had enough leftovers for steak sandwiches the next day. (They thoughtfully packed up some of that creamy horseradish with our steaks.) The jazz trio in the bar just behind us was really getting into it and this point. Were it not for a fast-approaching food coma, we would have stayed in the bar and had a nightcap. Even at 11:00 pm, the room showed no signs of slowing down.

Gibson’s is located at 5464 North River Road in Rosemont, IL. They can be reached at (847) 928-9900 or online at http://www.gibsonssteakhouse.com. Additional locations downtown on Rush Street (the original) and in Oakbrook offer a similar menu and experience, and all three are open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Players on Madison

Our regular monthly dining quartet had our May rendezvous at Players on Madison last night.  The room is a sleek, modern space.  The front is a wall of glass facing Madison Avenue in Lakewood.  In the back of the main room there is a bar with a railing separating it from the dining area.  Hanging strings of frosted glass discs help to further demarcate this from the rest of the room, simultaneously defining the bar area while leaving a sense of openness.  A thick wall runs down the center of the restaurant, reminding us that this was once two distinct storefronts.  Now, though, that wall has seen large portals carved out of it, creating “windows” from which one can see all of the action.  Hardwood floors, a stamped tin ceiling and curves of tiny halogen lamps complete the effect.

The extensive menu is covers a lot of ground.  The first section of starters includes Appetizers, Pizzettes and Salads.  An array of Entrees follows.  The back of the menu is a “build-your-own” Pizza and Pasta section.  You can choose from a variety of pastas or pizza crust options and top these with a lengthy selection of toppings, running the gamut from anchovies or red onion to chorizo or scallops.  The bottom of the page lists some Specialty Pizzas that offer unusual combinations.  Finally, our server dropped off a “Guest Check” listing the days specials.  After securing our cocktails from the bar, she circled back to explain the specials in greater detail.

We started the evening with an intriguing idea:  Tempura Strawberries.  Fresh strawberries were stuffed with goat cheese, dipped in tempura batter and flash-fried.  Plated with balsamic syrup and honey, it was certainly an unusual combination.  We decided that while they were delicious, eating the full serving of six berries would have been a bit much.  I also think this would have worked as a dessert course, straddling the line between sweet and savory.  A bread basket arrived with this course, offering slices of baguette and an herb bread, flecked with bright green.  These were presented with garlic herb butter.

After an appropriate pause, we received our individual apps.  There was a Roasted Chicken, Corn and Spinach Spring Roll, served with Asian slaw and Thai chili aioli.  Next up was a large plate of Lobster Nachos, one of the evening’s specials.  Large chunks of lobster were piled onto crispy tortilla triangles and garnished with melted cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo and sliced fresh jalapenos. Togarashi Encrusted Ahi Tuna Nachos layered with guacamole, grape tomatoes and citrus creme fraiche featured beautiful, dark red slabs of tuna.  Our final appetizer was a trio of Banana Peppers stuffed with Chorizo and Manchego, served with a full-flavored tomato and corn ragout. Out of all of these, the Lobster Nachos were the group’s favorite.

My entree was one of my favorite plates of the night.  Herb Marinated and Grilled Australian Lamb Loin, served alongside roasted fennel, portobello, artichoke hearts, chevre whipped potatoes, lavender essence and port reduction.  The thick slices of lamb, fanned out across the potatoes, were a perfect, rosy red inside.  Then there was Macaroni and Cheese – penne, herb grilled chicken, applewood smoked bacon and three cheese sauce.  This massive bowl arrived bubbling hot from the oven.  It was easily enough for three people!  While all of our portions had been generous throughout the evening, this one certainly won the prize for “Most Gargantuan!”  Next was a striking black bowl filled with housemade chevre raviolis, topped with a tumble of sauteed wild mushrooms and scented with truffle oil.  The sweetness of caramelized onion provided a nice counterpoint to the earthiness of all those fungi. To round out the table there was a pizza topped with portabello mushrooms and artichoke hearts.  The crust struck just the right balance between crispy and chewy.

By now we were quite full, but we could not resist the call of dessert.  We settled on the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pate.  This thick slab of dense chocolate was shot through with a vein of peanut butter goodness, the plate drizzled with a slash of caramel sauce and decorated with a poof of whipped cream.  Taking a riff on the peanut butter cup of our childhood, this iteration took the idea to the next level.  Even with four of us working on it, there was no way we could finish this confection.  It was like a slice from the World’s Largest Truffle and boy was it good.

When we rose from the table, we realized we had been there more than three and a half hours.  Our server never made us feel rushed, allowing us to set the pace for our evening.  She responded to our requests with grace and a smile.  We felt pampered and well-fed when we left.

Players menu is large enough that dining here does not need to be an expensive undertaking.  As noted, the portions are generous.  One could certainly make a meal from two of the apps, or an app and a pizzette.  (Happy Hour in the bar promises $5 cocktails and half-price appetizers, too!)  It’s also possible to splurge, as we did, and enjoy a whole succession of courses.  Starters run from $8 to $13; entrees from $16 to $25; desserts were all under  $10.  There is something for everyone on this menu, including a burger and fries.  The pizza and pasta section allows one to customize a meal to fit almost any taste.  I would happily return here anytime!

Sunset on the NCL Pearl

Taken near the end of the cruise, this is us looking serene.

We had a grand time on the Pearl.  Although we opted for a simple inside cabin, we agreed that this, our sixth cruise, was the best ever.  We liked this ship the best.  Its public spaces were the nicest of any we had experienced.  There was rarely a sense of the ship feeling crowded, despite 2400 passengers and more than a thousand crew being onboard.  Our Friends of Dorothy meetups had the bonus of being hosted and this made us feel that NCL had gone out of its way, rather than just including them on the schedule as an afterthought.  We made some interesting and rewarding choices on our shore excursions, especially the petroglyphs at Acapulco and the coffee plantation in Costa Rica.  Of course, the experience of transiting the Panama Canal was also a once in a lifetime treat.  And then there was the food….

Ah, the food.  We have generally been very happy with the food on all of our cruise vacations.  We had some minor concerns this time around, what with two weeks of eating and all.  We honestly felt that this sailing offered the BEST FOOD EVER.  The variety was simply amazing.  We never tired of the choices.  The quality was the highest that we could hope for.  The quantity was mind-boggling.  The buffet setup offered the best flow of any we have seen.  Extras such as the ice cream bar, chocolate fountain and afternoon tea station were a big plus.  The dining rooms were also excellent, offering fourteen different days of menus so we never felt bored.  We both gained more weight than we would like to admit!

We met some wonderful new friends on this trip as well.  Richard and Bill are such a great couple and it was a real treat getting to know them.  They generously invited us to their cabin multiple times to take in the sunset on their balcony.  We also enjoyed a nightcap several times with other new buddies from our FOD meetups.  The people we had met through Cruise Critic online before we even sailed were great too!  We participated in a cabin crawl that gave us a chance to view a variety of cabins, including oceanviews, balconies and a whole range of suites.  The most spectacular of these was the Garden Villa, which accommodates six guests in more than 5000 square feet of luxury, including a private hot tub, butler service and four bathrooms!  It was more cabin than we could ever hope for and we felt lucky to get the chance to see it.

The staff on the ship was also among the best we have experienced.  Our Cruise Director, Andy Steinhauser, put together action packed days and nights that kept us as occupied as we wanted to be.  His assignment of a staff member to our daily meetings was a wonderful treat.  Our host, Erwin Baltazar, offered us a genuine feeling of welcome.  He was engaging and friendly and very, very funny.  Of all the hundreds of other waiters, chefs, bartenders, receptionists and  room stewards we encountered, we felt they all were going above and beyond to make our cruise simply unforgettable.

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

I couldn't resist!

Our final port of the cruise was Cabo San Lucas.  Sitting at the southernmost tip of Baja California, this town is a major tourist destination for Hollywood moguls and the like.  The natural setting of jagged rocks rising out of crystal blue waters makes for a dramatic backdrop.  We tendered in to the port early and spent the day walking around the marina.  It is lined with restaurants and bars looking out onto the hundreds of boats harbored there.  We also explored the streets behind the water’s edge, even locating a Starbucks outpost!  We shopped the myriad of souvenir stalls, eventually settling on a Mexican wrestler’s mask as a gift for a friend stateside.  Finally we stopped for lunch at a dockside venue.

Part of our lunch in Cabo.

This was one of our favorite scenes of the entire vacation.  We settled into chairs at Solomon’s Landing, located at a corner of the marina next to a straw market.  Music from the restaurant wafted out over the parade of well-oiled vacationers strolling up and down the walkway, providing us with never-ending entertainment as we ate.  Another round of Pacifico beers paired with guacamole, salsa and chips to start us off.  Tony chose an authentic beef burrito stuffed with grilled skirt steak, avocado, tomato and crema.  I splurged on a whole grilled lobster.  Bursting out of its bright red shell, it was served with rice pilaf and fresh vegetables.  We were as relaxed as we have ever been and life seemed very, very good at that moment.  I feel grateful for that particular experience.

Later that afternoon, we enjoyed a cocktail on the balcony of our newfound friends Richard and Bill.  As we sipped on a cool drink, the ship swung around in a 180 degree arc in preparation for leaving the bay.  This gave us a final, sweeping panorama of the town and its stunning setting.  We were nearing the end of what we all agreed was one of the best vacations of our lives.