There are at least three things you can count on at every Brendan Sodikoff restaurant. There will be a retro-cool, dimly lit atmosphere. There will be bread; roasted bone marrow with toast is a menu given. And there will be great soap in the restroom.
That indicates a restaurateur who communicates a clear identity, doesn't mess with success and sweats the details.
Sodikoff already has certifiable hits with Gilt Bar, Maude's Liquor Bar and Au Cheval (and let's not forget his lines-around-the-block Doughnut Vault), and Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, now 10 weeks old, looks like another winner. The dining room couldn't be more comfortable; tufted red-leather booths and banquettes, distressed mirrors and a zinc-topped bar give the high-ceiling loft space a sultry, speak-easy look, abetted by a classic jazz soundtrack at conversation-friendly levels. (After enduring nonstop "untsa" music at too many restaurants, hearing Ella Fitzgerald on the speakers is ... bliss.)
Before it opened, Bavette's was posited as a European-style steakhouse — but the finished product, its menu replete with interpretations of shrimp de jonghe, beef stroganoff and braised beef tongue (which comes across as one of the best pot roast dishes you'll ever taste), is more American (and more Chicago-American, for that matter) than not.
Yes, there are steaks, though at times they seem to be the last thing on the restaurant's mind. Bavette's strives mightily to avoid major-steakhouse cliches, bypassing, for instance, the verbal manifesto so common to steakhouse servers, and forswearing the old flashlight-on-the-platter, tour du boeuf presentation. Fine with me if Sodikoff eschews the obvious, but it seems that the $75 bone-in filet could use a little salesmanship. And only one of my three servers could discuss the steak choices with any authority.
That said, the $56, 24-ounce dry-aged rib-eye is the real deal, a seriously good cut of meat. And the 10-ounce flatiron steak, the least-expensive steak option, has flavor to spare and a hefty helping of good fries.
But there's a lot more to Bavette's than boeuf. There are excellent terrines, for example, such as a scary-rich foie gras with blackberry-raspberry jam, and a luscious peppered-duck and goat-cheese terrine with house-made apricot mostarda. There's a nice version of shrimp de jonghe, a Chicago invention, the sauteed shrimp heavy with garlic and sweetened ever so slightly with sherry butter. Pieces of smoked whitefish add extra depth to what is otherwise a traditional Caesar salad.
The aforementioned beef stroganoff is terrific; the house-made pasta is richly eggy and arrives at the table precisely al dente; the short-rib meat on top, glazed with sherry jus, is so tender it's almost spreadable, thanks to a 10-hour braise. Too often, beef stroganoff features tough and stringy meat and limp pasta; here, the texture is perfect.
Fried chicken is unexpectedly good, remarkably crunchy on the outside and delicious inside, even though the accompanying ranch dressing (on the side, thankfully) doesn't do anything for me. There's a good-quality Berkshire pork chop on the menu, even if the one I ordered arrived overdone. The major disappointment came from the expensive but extraordinarily fatty lamb chops; I was shocked by how much trim I was leaving on my plate.
You expect good side dishes from a steakhouse, and Bavette's obliges. The elote-style corn (not long for the menu with winter approaching) is delicious, accented with chile, lime and Parmesan, and there's a fine, bleu-cheese-lace creamed spinach. The baked potato is a thing of beauty, a massive tuber studded with maple-glazed pork belly (a tad too sweet for me) and ramekins of chives, sour cream and shredded cheddar for customizing.
And, like most steakhouses, Bavette's has various shellfish platters (ranging from $42 to $165) and a quartet of oysters.
Desserts aren't spectacular, but they're very solid. There's a tall and tart lemon-meringue pie, a note-perfect Chicago-style cheesecake, and a gold-brick sundae (the ice cream sourced from Black Dog Gelato) that takes me back to childhood.
Bavette's is a fine place to drink. There's a solid wine list, a sizable whiskey assortment and some outstanding cocktails, including a cognac-based Sazerac and one terrific mint julep.
When the main dining area fills up, there is the downstairs parlor, which serves the full menu but is a low-ceiling space where the light level is considerably darker and the music considerably untsa-ier. I'm sure it's appealing to some, but it strikes me as the space where the kids go to sneak liquor while their parents party upstairs.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
Bavette's Bar & Boeuf
218 W. Kinzie St.; 312-624-8154
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Entrees $16-$42.50; steaks $21-$75
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
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.