Considering the dearth of full-service dining within the confines of north suburban Glencoe, the new Guildhall restaurant probably didn't have to work very hard to attract an audience. Just about anything would have been an improvement.
But it's clear the owners and managers of this not-quite-4-month-old operation are on a mission to create not just a good restaurant, but a great one.
Taking over a space that once was home to a locally owned hardware and general store, the owners commissioned 555 International designers (Balena, Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster) to create an atmosphere that was sophisticated, inviting and respectful of the building's history. They brought in general manager Phil Marienthal, who ran Blue Mesa restaurant in Lincoln Park (a very good restaurant in its time). And they tapped Christian Ragano, whose resume includes nine years at NoMI and a stint at Tru, to be executive chef.
Ragano's cooking embraces Spanish, French and Italian influences, but his menu makes approachability a priority. Options include a couple of burgers (a traditional burger with choice of cheeses and a brioche bun, and a signature burger with bacon, onions and morbier cheese on a pretzel roll), a couple of pizzas (tarte flambee, or Alsatian-style flatbread pizza) and a wood-roasted half chicken that "will never leave the menu," says Ragano.
These dishes aren't perfunctory by any means, but I'd direct your attention elsewhere. Among starters, for instance, there's a nifty spin on salad lyonnaise, the usual frisee leaves mixed with mustard greens, smoked trout standing in for pork lardons, plus some crisp apple slices for sweetness and crunch. Ragano's silky sweet-corn soup contains beneath-the-surface surprises as shaved jamon Iberico and chewy corn niblets, topped with a drizzle of cilantro oil. Overgrilling mars the pork belly, though the accompaniments are clever (pickled nectarines, nectarine mostarda and dandelion greens), and peekytoe crab salad on toast is a nice, if pricey, tartine. Guildhall will never be an oyster destination, but the fresh oyster platter is a worthy option, thanks to a delightful yuzu vinaigrette.
Pay attention to the catch of the day, which might be fashioned into a citrus-dressed crudo with a bit of jalapeno, or, more elaborately, take center stage amid clams, mussels and rouille-drizzled croutons in a shallow bouillabaisse broth. Very mild walleye works with its assertive plate companions — arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette, eggplant puree below the fish and piquillo-pepper jam on top — and a special of arctic char one evening paired nicely with grilled romaine lettuce.
Good meats include the fennel-rich sausage that fleshes out the house-made orecchiette pasta, generously topped with Parmesan; a pair of excellent lamb chops with a Greek-influenced salad of olives, cucumber, feta cheese and farro; and a just-right steak frites (the flatiron steak is prime) with a bit of shallot jam along with the herby maitre d'hotel butter and hand-cut frites.
Simple-sounding desserts have clever touches. A farmers-market crisp — whose fruit components change with the harvest — are made with an elderflower syrup redolent of basil and mint. The key lime cheesecake is actually a thickened mousse, served on its graham-cracker base with a bit of fruit jam (again, changing from week to week). Ragano tinkers with classic affogato (espresso "drowned" ice cream, biscotti) by creating an ice cream from bourbon-barrel-smoked sugar, dusting the finished product with smoky salt and using a cherry-pecan biscotti instead of a plain one. The relatively austere amount of espresso in the bowl makes the dessert less sloppy while focusing attention on the novel ingredients.
The physical space features white-on-white decor of various textures and hues; walls are clad in burlap here, painted brick there and glossy subway tile in the open kitchen. Large archways provide visual, though not actual, separation between various seating areas and the zinc-topped bar. Large street-side windows swing open in favorable weather. Efficient servers wend easily among the various tables and seating zones, and the kitchen, at least in my experiences, is quick. If you want to enjoy your experience a bit longer (and you should), get the drink orders in quickly and order food in stages.
Not surprisingly, the community has embraced Guildhall, filling its 150 seats with some regularity. Therein lie Guildhall's principal drawbacks: Weekend reservations can be hard to secure, and when the chairs are filled and people are waiting in the bar, the noise level approaches the excruciating. Guildhall pulls in so many locals that it's common to see departing parties pausing to chat with new arrivals; so, yeah, noisy.
But for a downtown whose restaurant scene has been way too quiet up until now, that noise probably sounds pretty sweet.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
694 Vernon Ave., Glencoe; 847-835-8100; guildhallrestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $15-$46
Credit cards: A, DC, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Twitter @philvettelCopyright © 2015, RedEye