If my enthusiasm for Gilt Bar seems a little restrained, well, I vowed that I wouldn't let myself get hurt again.
You see, Gilt Bar, a spiffy little 6-month-old, so young and appealing and full of promise, sits at 230 W. Kinzie St. And that address has broken my heart before.
Since the nightclub George's closed its doors in 1990, this address has seduced me with one appealing restaurant after another. Havana, which nabbed a Best New Restaurant award from Bon Appetit in 1998. Pili Pili. Aigre Doux, the most recent casualty and the one that hurts most. Even the best-forgotten DeJoie's Bistro, in the early '90s, wasn't terrible. They all left me.
Yet here I am again, back at this address, fork in one hand and pen in the other, a hopeful Charity Valentine at the Fandango Ballroom door. For there are reasons to believe that Gilt might outlast its predecessors.
Owner Brendan Sodikoff and executive chef Jason Vaughan have impressive pedigrees; Sodikoff's globe-trotting resume includes cooking time at Per Se, Lucas Carton and Alain Ducasse; Vaughan was last seen at L20, and Sodikoff and Vaughan cooked together at the well-regarded A16 in San Francisco.
But for all their high-end cooking experience, and in seeming contrast to the "Gilt" name, Sodikoff and Vaughan have kept this place very affordable. Yes, there's a steak that'll set you back $30 or so, but every other dish is less than $20. Gilt Bar is posited as a small-plates concept, but portions tend toward the substantial. And the cooking is more sophisticated, the flavors more nuanced, than the all-lower-case menu descriptions might lead one to believe.
For instance, the roasted chicken, a Gunthorp Farms bird seasoned with oregano and roasted garlic, is as simple and classic as dishes get. But the chicken is juicy perfection, a reminder of how soul-satisfying roast chicken can be. Pork belly can be found all over town, but I recommend sampling Gilt Bar's superior version, consisting of meaty slices under a raspberry-shallot glaze, over farro verde and wax beans. Firm pork meatballs over polenta, spicy pork sausage jazzing up a plate of orecchiette pasta — simple and delicious.
Appetizers tend toward the indulgent, from the Flintstonian pile of lengthwise-cut bones that deliver unctuous, earthy troves of bone marrow (perked up with red-onion jam) to the jar of liver mousses (pork liver and foie gras, blended). Raw options include a fine coarse-chopped steak tartare with the usual accompaniments, and a camera-ready plate of chilled hamachi, accented with ginger-lime vinaigrette and tiny dices of pickled watermelon.
Worthy salads include roasted beets with pickled kumquats and heirloom tomatoes with buttery burrata cheese. The peach salad with arugula, candied walnuts and Manchego cheese is so wine-friendly it can served double-duty as a cheese course.
Desserts are solid, not knockouts, and old-fashioned in a good way. There's a yummy mocha cream pie with toasted coconut and mocha mousse, a retro-diner dish that ought to come with a paper doily. The chocolate almond is a real cake — not a flour-phobic slab of fudge — augmented with sour-cherry jam. A plate of blackberries with brown-sugar ice cream, sprinkled with streusel topping, is like a cobbler minus its container.
The interior is done in salvage modern, lit dimly — arguably too dimly — with a series of small lights and arty chandeliers that give the room an amber glow. Wood tabletops are artfully distressed; the wall fronting the kitchen is covered in riveted, aged-metal plates. Black tufted-leather banquettes back up against white-brick walls. The beautiful travertine marble floors, which go back to George's heyday, remain in place, because it would be a sin to disturb them.
The cocktail culture is well-represented. The bar makes a fine champagne cocktail, and its version of a pisco sour, sweetened with a little apricot liqueur, is a keeper. Serious imbibers should seek out Curio, the lower-level environment that serves only drinks (off a 30-item cocktail list) and transacts business with a vintage cash register — so there's no plastic accepted downstairs. It's the kind of quirky touch that can develop a strong following.
And with a strong following, just maybe … oh, God, here I go again.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
230 W. Kinzie St., 312-464-9544
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Entree prices: $11-$30
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parkingCopyright © 2015, RedEye