Compare executive chef Troy Graves' output at this 3-month-old Bucktown newcomer to his fine-dining efforts at Eve, his last stop, and it's clear that he's keeping his culinary range in tight check. Then again, there weren't a lot of $9 chicken dishes on that Eve menu.
"The bulk of Meritage's customers drove here; it was a destination for suburbanites that drew no neighborhood people," he says. "We're trying to avoid that."
In Meritage's day, relying on foot traffic would have been financial suicide, but in the intervening years, the neighborhood demographic has improved its spending power. Red Door has the luxury of skipping valet service — that alone will keep suburbanites at bay — as long as its prices stay within reach of students and stroller-pushers.
"We're trying to do bar food — good, thought-out bar food," says Graves. "Less traditional, and more international flavors. It's hard to label."
Gastropub? Red Door's 40-plus beer selection would certainly seem to justify it. Graves, however, argues that his light, small-plates menu lacks the heft that the term implies.
Substantial or no, Red Door offers plenty for grazers to enjoy. The "snacks" section alone justifies a visit; nibbles include roasted bone marrow, each bone segment topped with a single escargot. Artichokes stuffed with chicken liver are wrapped in bacon and placed beside a romesco sauce, in a sort of hipster rumaki; poutine, a Great White North dish that seems to have seized the city's affections this summer, rises above the cheese-and-fries norm with peas, yellow-curry gravy and a nice amount of chicken confit (that is, chicken cooked in duck fat) among all those pan-fried curds.
The small plates (there are no entrees) are divided into veggie, meat, seafood and "on bread" categories. The best efforts are the ones in which Graves plays with textures, as when he combines pieces of tender grilled octopus with crunchy cauliflower, manzanilla olives and celery into an agreeable seafood-based salad. And his quinoa composition, the grain mixed with mushrooms, marcona almonds, kohlrabi and sweet prunes, pulled together with a just-spicy-enough harissa sauce, is a vegetarian option anybody could appreciate.
One could assemble quite the globe-trotting meal here, choosing from Korean-style spareribs and pickled cucumbers over a nonthreatening kimchi, Vietnamese-seasoned chicken thighs on a bed of shishito peppers, and crispy, panko-breaded rabbit schnitzel with house-made sauerkraut and honey mustard. Graves' sole concession to pub-food protocol is the Red Door burger, fashioned with butterkase cheese and bacon-onion jam.
There usually are two or three desserts available, and the choice changes so often that Graves doesn't bother printing them up. Look for classic sweets — apple-pear crumble, cherry cobbler, bread pudding — generally served warm to piping-hot, invariably topped with ice cream.
Laid-back service encourages a go-with-the-flow approach to dinner — no "chef prefers you order your entire meal at once" restrictions here. Indeed, the kitchen kicks out dishes so quickly I'd advise ordering at intervals, lest your table become too cluttered. Waiters are helpful with beer selections, which is a good thing, because the beverage menu doesn't tell you much more than the beers' names.
The interior is pleasant enough, though much of the two dining rooms are starved for natural light. Which is why anybody with an option tries to sit on the outdoor deck, a multilevel, wood-clad environment illuminated by strings of overhead light bulbs. On one of my visits, late-afternoon rain (and the threat of more) kept the deck closed, and from the look of some of the guests indoors, to say nothing of those standing at the bar, I bet many would have taken the risk.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
2118 N. Damen Ave.; 773-697-7221; reddoorchicago.com
Tribune rating: One star
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Small plates $4-$16
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
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.