First thing's first.
Morton's Grille is being billed as the "casual yet sophisticated" version of Morton's the Steakhouse, but when I attended the media preview event, journalist uniforms (a.k.a. jeans and a T-shirt) were not in abundance. Casual is not a word I'd use to describe anything about the place. This is still Morton's, and it's in the Woodlands. Chic party dresses and heels are definitely part of the vibe at the newly opened hotspot.
Attire aside, my first impression of Morton's Grille is that it's pretty swanky, but also comfortable enough for family dinners. And lovers of steak need not worry about the new iteration of Morton's abandoning the dish for which it has become famous. Steak still features prominently on the menu, but the chefs behind the new menu wanted to make it more accessible and shareable as well.
At the preview event, we were told that a number of Morton's the Steakhouse chefs got together to pitch and then vote on their favorite dishes, which eventually became a part of the Morton's Grille menu. It was supposedly a very democratic (and I'll bet delicious) process.
The new restaurant can seat about 160 people in the dining area and the patio, and there's also a private banquet room with a big television that had me dreaming of stylish Superbowl or Oscar parties.
High-backed leather booths anchor the main dining room, which is separated from the entryway by a wall of wine bottles on glass shelving. Ornate modern chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows provide warm light during the day. In the evening and once the weather cools off, the windows can be opened to create a more unified space between the restaurant and the patio.
Though I can't yet vouch for the entire menu, the samples that we had were majorly meat-centric, as they should be. The original Morton's cooks up a mean steak, and the steak, ribs and meatballs we tasted at the preview are no different in terms of quality.
Bacon fat braised ribs are sweet and tender, and the meat falls off the bone with little effort. A pastrami reuben features marbled rye bread, house-made red cabbage slaw, swiss cheese and thousand island dressing, but the star of that show is definitely the pastrami, which is cut paper thin but is still bursting with meaty goodness.
The dish I'd order upon a return trip to the restaurant -- and the dish I saw several others sneak back to for seconds -- is a braised beef short rib slider. I tend to be rather indifferent to the slider trend, but these are top-notch. The short ribs are juicy and flavorful, and they're accentuated by creamy horseradish sauce and delectable crispy shallots. It's all served on perfect little egg and onion rolls that are sweet and doughy and so much more than merely a vessel for the meat.
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The desserts, while pretty, are a bit rich when paired with heavy steak and rib dishes, but they do seem like typical fare for a steakhouse/casual dining hybrid. I sampled a jumbo chocolate peanut butter cup, a cheesecake ball and a key lime tart and found the key lime tart to be the only standout for its buttery crust, tart, creamy center and dollop of thick whipped cream. That little bit of acidity was nice after several small but hearty meat samples.
Also worth mentioning is the cocktail program, which Morton's Grille is trying to beef up. Or pork up, rather, as one of the new signature cocktails made with mescal, orange juice and ginger ale features a thick slice of bacon as a garnish. The cocktail list is smaller than that of the steakhouse, but the offerings are more diverse and playful. Think fewer martinis and more things with names like "Punch in the Face" and "Woodlands Passion."
Morton's Grille in the Woodlands is the first of its kind anywhere in the country, but if it's successful, the company plans to open more "casual sisters" in other big cities. It's not so much of a departure that fans of the steakhouse will be put off, but it also seems unique enough to stand on its own. It's open for business now, so check it out and see for yourself.
But don't wear jeans.