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The Palm firmly rooted as an Italian steakhouse favorite

If you like lobster executive chef Isaac Holzwarth says you’ve come right place dining room Palm restaurant. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

If you like lobster, executive chef Isaac Holzwarth says you’ve come to the right place in the dining room at the Palm restaurant. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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The Palm ★★1/2

323 E. Wacker in the Swissotel Chicago;
(312) 616-1000;

Hours: Lunch and dinner served daily.

Prices: Dinner appetizers and salads, $13-$19; steaks and chops, $29-$46; seafood, $34-$37; desserts, $7-$10.

Try: Fried calamari, lobster roll, lobster ravioli, steakburgers, bone-in ribeye, Key lime pie.

In a bite: The Palm features big steaks, really big lobster and chop dishes, plus a few choices that pay homage to its Italian New York City roots (circa 1926). The caricatures of celebrities still fill the walls, a touch that, I believe, makes the Palm rather special. Crisp white tablecloths, savvy waiters, booths and tables spread out and back away from the bar just inside the front entrance into semi-private dining nooks. Selected seating options offer a splendid view of the lake to the east. Reservations suggested. There are dishes on the menu that children would enjoy (burgers, pasta).

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good; ★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: July 14, 2011 8:20PM

It was on Second Avenue in New York in 1926 that the Palm restaurant opened. There are now Palm restaurants spread across the United States, from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

A chain? No! I never viewed the Palm as part of the chain gang. In fact, I was really taken with the atmosphere and food quality when the Palm opened in Chicago on East Lake Shore Drive in the 1970s. When it moved to the Swissotel, I was concerned the iconic steakhouse would lose some of its character. But the Palm at the Swissotel is lighter and brighter (both the bar area and dining rooms), and the view to the east is impressive.

Just as impressive as the atmosphere and its casual coolness is the food. The Palm is a well-run operation. I have ducked in for lunch or dinner several times, and the consistency never falters. And I like the cut of the menu, which has something for everyone but does not stretch to the point of absurdity and has not fallen into that small-plate deep well. It has a nice balance among appetizers, seafood, steaks and chops, and a couple of Italian dishes. Those few Italian dishes place the Palm squarely in the Italian steakhouse genre, which around Chicago is not a bad place to be.

On a recent lunch visit, the Business Lunch Menu caught my eye. Three courses priced right at $22.95, and the selections were not downsized one iota. You choose soup or salad (have the classic Caesar). Second-course choices were steak au poivre (10-ounce cut, mashed potatoes included), chicken Parmigiana (linguine marinara included) and salmon fillet. For dessert, chocolate cake or Key lime pie.

Lunch this particular day started with the tender and well-played fried calamari. These were Point Judith (the best) squid that had been dusted lightly with cornmeal, fried gently and included more rings than tentacles. In fact, it was enough for two to share.

Next up was the Nova Scotia lobster roll. I give it high marks, despite the somewhat heavy split roll (it would have been even better had the flat side of the roll been toasted). In it was a copious amount of sweet lobster held together with just the right amount of mayo and shaved celery. Not a lobster salad roll; rather a true lobster roll. Nice job. There also was a special of lobster ravioli that was excellent as well. A forest of cuttings of cremini mushrooms sprawled across the thin-skinned plump ravioli (glazed with a light butter sauce).

Steaks are aged for 35 days, and the lineup is what you would find at just about every top-drawer steakhouse around town — New York strip, bone-in ribeye, filet mignon, Delmonico. I never pass on a bone-in ribeye, and the Palm’s is up there with others I’ve had around town. It was cooked perfectly medium-rare and it had a rich flavor, but not the deeply rich mineral flavor that I am used to with a dry-aged steak.

If springing for an expensive steak is not in the cards, the “Bozzi Prime” steakburger would be an alternative. This 12-ounce burger was meaty and tasty on its own, but when it got all dressed up with Gouda and a smoky barbecue sauce, I think it lost its edge. The burger came on a toasted brioche bun with crispy fried onions and french fries (decent enough). It’s definitely worth $17. The lunch menu dives deeper into 12-ounce “prime” steakburgers. Six renditions in all, and all are sensibly priced at around $15.

The one dessert tried, Key lime pie with a blueberry compote, was excellent, with a pucker-up edge of lime, a smoothness, a bit of cream topping under the blueberry spread and light graham cracker crust. It all added up to a good and plenty-delicious choice.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM-AM (780) News Radio.

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