Coherence is overrated. That's the conclusion I draw from Beatrix, an agreeable hodgepodge of a restaurant that opened six months ago in River North and has been doing brisk business ever since.
Focus? Fuggedaboutit. This Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises concept features three chefs, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch, and also features a coffee bar and grab-and-go pastry case.
Beatrix sits just off the lobby of the extremely hip Aloft Chicago City Center hotel and is essentially Lettuce Chairman Rich Melman's re-imagining of the hotel restaurant. Beatrix is dimly lit, energetic and hip; the concrete floors, wood beams and exposed mechanicals give the space an urban-loft vibe even though the construction is brand new. The no-frills look is belied by very comfortable seating (the heavy leather chairs are wonderful, though the fabric ones apparently stain too easily).
You could rename the menu "Stuff Rich likes to eat," and you wouldn't be far off. The back story is that every dish at Beatrix was developed in Lettuce's test kitchen but never made it onto a Lettuce Restaurant menu, a sort of culinary version of the "Island of Misfit Toys."
"These are recipes we all loved," says John Chiakulas, part of the three-headed chef hydra that runs Beatrix (Rita Dever and Susan Weaver are the other chefs), "but for whatever reason never made it into those stores."
OK, "Island of Misfit Toys" is too harsh. The menu may defy categorization, but the individual dishes are well conceived and, unlike the fabled misfit toys (a train with square wheels, a boat that can't float), tend to work.
The bottom of the menu bears the slogan "Taste over Trend," and that's not exactly right either. No insult intended to the taste half of the equation, but the menu is loaded with trendy influences, current and recent. Korean-spiced beef, check; hamachi crudo, check. There's raw kale with the burger, and braised kale with the turkey "neatloaf." Quinoa appears on the menu twice, and that's still trending well, at least until Foodie Nation goes freaky for freekeh. Which is also on the menu.
The urban look and the playful menu names mask the fact that Beatrix's menu plays things about as cautiously as you might expect a hotel dining room to do. There are salads, some pasta and meatloaf comfort-food items, a couple of fish, some braised dishes, a steak. Two things distinguish the collection: A good selection of lighter, health-conscious touches (which the menu doesn't even point out) and enough clever twists from the kitchen to keep the audience from nodding off.
Entrees are particularly attention-worthy. Branzino is topped with a golden-brown brioche crust that looks like a plank of wood but contributes crunch and buttery notes, and makes the sea bass taste a little like Dover sole. Salmon gets something of a south-of-the-border treatment, topped with a mole-like chocolate-chile glaze and served with corn tortillas and a light coleslaw flecked with smoked almonds.
Korean-spiced short ribs are light and lively, placed over vermicelli-style brown-rice noodles tossed with snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and Fresno chiles, seasoned with cilantro and a gentle soy glaze. Caramelized pork shank with cider reduction is one of the menu's caloric indulgences, helped along with sweet potatoes and apples. The prime burger is another indulgence, though there is the option of whole-grain toast in place of a burger bun, and at seven ounces it is a less-impactful choice than the half-pound and even 12-ounce burgers found at other restaurants.
The menu begins with a handful of small snacks: Tsukune are Japanese-style chicken meatballs whose chile-cilantro glaze provides a sweet-and-sour effect; the meatballs are soft and tasty with nice ginger notes, though they're way too salty overall. Deviled eggs, filled with potato salad, offer a little taste of summer picnics. Quinoa cakes, with an ever-changing lineup of toppings, function as a sort of gluten-free bruschetta (and Beatrix has an extensive list of gluten-free options).
Farther down the list there's a nurturing "Our Tomato Soup," decorated with a squiggle of herb oil, and a "Straight A Salad" of arugula, avocado, asiago, almonds and Asian pear. The "enlightened" Caesar salad is a lower-calorie version that uses Greek yogurt dressing. It's a good salad; it's not a Caesar, but it's good.
Desserts include a couple of sensible choices, including a vegan chia pudding, but I'll direct you to the indulgences, such as the "Oh my" caramel pie, a pile of sweet richness on a shortbread-cookie base, and the "tall, dark and handsome" cake, which is a 11/2-inch chocolate cake topped with another 11/2 inches of dense chocolate mousse. The so-called banana split arrives in a tall glass, bearing vanilla ice cream and hot rosemary-banana caramel sauce, topped with caramelized onions and whipped cream; it's pleasant but a bit of a mess.
Service is accommodating and generally good, though I did get a bit of the bum's rush one very quiet night when my entree arrived before I could finish my soup (and I wasn't dawdling). And when the room is full, the server-customer dynamic is hampered by the need to communicate with raised voices.
Among the beverage options are a half-dozen fresh-squeezed juice combinations; you can order them as-is or spiked with a shot of booze. The juices are quite nice by themselves, though a shot of English gin does wonders for the cucumber-mint soda.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
519 N. Clark St.; 312-284-1377
Tribune rating: 1 star
Open: Dinner and lunch Monday-Sunday, breakfast Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Main courses $12.95-$24.95
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking (discount with validation)
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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