The prices at Morton's The Steakhouse may not fit into every family's everyday budget. But if you're looking for a special dinner, you may find the offerings are about as American as it gets.
For example, one of the restaurant's big-gest draws - besides the prime steaks and chops - is Morton's famous macaroni and cheese, which Execu-tive Chef John Rey says often is ordered as an appetizer, and definitely is big enough to share.
"Definitely, when you see kids, the mac and cheese is going to that table. But everyone loves it," he says. "It's got to be the most asked-for thing on the menu besides steak. The key is using good cheese, and the apple wood bacon, which we added when we brought it back."
Rey says he believes the macaroni and cheese was removed from the corporate menu several years ago because some locations were not selling it regularly. That meant the creamy cheese sauce that forms the base was being made to order, instead of in a batch at the beginning of the night, so the high quality on which Morton's builds its reputation was inconsistent.
But almost as soon as Landry's Inc. bought Morton's the rich dish was brought back due to popular demand, and that all-important apple wood bacon was added. Rey says the dish can be made without bacon, but he sees maybe 1 in 10 people order it that way.
"You have to follow through because people have expectations," he explains. "Whether they walk into Morton's here or in Texas, everything has to taste exactly the same. Consistency is what brings people back.
"It's like McDonald's; a cheeseburger has to taste exactly the same here or in Ohio. That's the same thing we do here."
Rey should know about consistency. After serving in the Navy in the 1980s - as a cook, of course - he started working for Hyde Park restaurants, another high-end steakhouse chain in his native Ohio. But after being passed over for the position of head chef there, he took a job as a traveling chef for Morton's, training staff from Texas to Toronto on putting out a consistently delicious product.
But while all that travel was fun, Rey didn't like spending so much time away from his growing family in Akron, Ohio. So after his second child was born, the doting daddy moved his girls - wife Allyson and daughters Layne and Lindsey - to the Manahawkin section of Stafford Township and has been running the kitchen at Morton's Atlantic City for the past four years.
Rey says his daughters love Morton's bacon and onion macaroni and cheese so much, when Lindsey turned 7 last week, the dish was on her requested menu, along with his barbecue wings and 24-hour salad.
"You do a layer of iceberg lettuce, a layer of peas and tomatoes, a layer of Miracle Whip, Parmesan cheese and crumbled bacon, then you let the whole thing sit for 24 hours," he says, explaining the concoction his wife's grandmother used to make, which he now reproduces for his health-conscious kids. "My kids eat real healthy, that's all my wife. When they go to parties, my kids are the only ones eating the vegetables. People are in awe of how my wife does it, but they just eat what we eat."
Rey says what sets Morton's macaroni and cheese apart from the Kraft and Velveeta versions so popular with young palates is using good-quality cheese. "And everything tastes better with bacon," he adds.
Maybe it's because - not in spite of - Morton's being a fine-dining establishment, that those rich, tasty ingredients are so well received, he reasons. And those high-end ingredients haven't scared off any children coming in with their parents for a weekend splurge. In fact, diners of all ages seem unable to get enough of the rich, tasty comfort food.
Another thing Rey finds relevant is the "strong leadership" provided by general manager Michael Flannelly and food and beverage director Peter Durst, who first introduced Rey to the "great school system" in his new home in Manahawkin. Rey can appreciate good leadership in the front of the house because he also took the time to study restaurant management in culinary school, and at Morton's, "we're all involved with everything," and "cross-training only makes us better. I'm turning cooks into sous chefs and showing them how to do things better," Rey says. So on any night Morton's is open inside Caesar's Atlantic City, you can bet your bottom dollar your meal will be prepared exactly to Morton's high standards.
Contact Felicia Compian:
Morton's Bacon & Onion Macaroni & Cheese
•12 ounces dried cavatappi or other small, hollow, rigid pasta
•1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
•1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
•1 1/4 cups heavy cream
•6 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded, (about 2 cups)
•4 ounces cream cheese, cubed
•3 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (about 2/3 cup)
•1 ounce Swiss cheese, grated (about 6 tablespoons)
•1/2 tablespoon chile paste, such as sambal oelek
•Kosher salt, to taste
•8 ounces diced apple wood bacon, cooked
•4 ounces yellow cheddar, shredded
•2 ounces white cheddar, shredded
•2 ounces gruyere, shredded
•1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain, but leave a little water to keep pasta moist. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water to thin the sauce. Return pasta to cooking pot and cover to keep warm.
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and saute onion for about 1 minute, or until tender. Add cream and bring to a simmer. Stir in 2 cups shredded cheddar, cream cheese, Parmesan and Swiss cheeses. Cook, stirring, until cheeses melt and are fully incorporated into cream. Let the sauce reach a simmer and stir in chile paste. You should have 2 1/2 to 3 cups of sauce.
Remove from heat and beat with an immersion blender or handheld mixer about 45 seconds, or until onion and cheeses are completely blended. The sauce will be thick, thin it using reserved pasta water and mix well. Add bacon and salt to taste.
Ladle the sauce over pasta and mix well with a rubber spatula. Transfer to a deep, 2 quart baking dish and spread evenly. Mix together the remaining yellow cheddar and white cheddar and gruyere cheeses together and sprinkle over the casserole, followed by bread crumbs. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until hot and bubbling around the edges. Serve immediately.
Servings: 6 to 8