November 10, 2011
The foursome across from me could barely notice the food on their table, so intent were they on the party in the far corner. They craned their necks; they giggled; they tweeted furiously. Eventually, the female half of the group mustered the courage to approach. They were respectful. The famous person who had caught their eye graciously shook hands. The women departed, triumph in their eyes.
In the 1950s Pump Room, the celebrity in question could have been Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. or any of a galaxy's worth of stars back when this Gold Coast restaurant was the destination for out-of-town luminaries.
In the 2011 Pump Room, the celeb in question happened to be Michael Jordan. Who, let it be noted, is part owner of two Chicago restaurants, yet, this night, was dining here.
The Pump Room, resurrected by Ian Schrager and transformed with a top-to-bottom contemporary redesign, has recaptured its mojo as a celebrity-spotting, see-and-be-seen destination. The dining room and its attendant lounges are packed every night, and 8 p.m. reservations are the stuff of legend, in the sense that they may not really exist.
The age range of the clientele is impressive. Schrager's Pump Room is pulling old-guard Pump Room patrons, who might have seen Sinatra in his prime, plus an entirely new generation of diners who aren't old enough to remember Nancy Sinatra, let alone Frank. Some nights, with both generations filling the tables, dining here is like crashing a very large wedding. Only with way better food.
Schrager recruited New York chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten to run the Pump Room's kitchen, and what Vongerichten essentially has done is re-create his acclaimed New York restaurant ABC Kitchen (the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding New Restaurant in 2011) on the Gold Coast. It's not a clone — chef Brad Phillips, the day-to-day kitchen presence, gives the menu a decidedly Midwest emphasis, particularly among the fish — but the farm-to-table, local-sourcing ethic is very much in place.
Vongerichten's well-documented love of chilies (he created the Thai-fusion restaurant Vong, which had a short existence in Chicago, more than a decade ago) is very much in evidence here, though often their use is quite subtle. A touch of chili adds brightness to a raw fluke carpaccio; green chili butter adds warmth and depth to a juicy grilled pork chop.
"I can't eat without chilies anymore," Vongerichten says. "They make dishes pop. I want the last bite to be as exciting as the first bite."
Less subtle are the jalapenos that give a gentle jolt to the crispy walleye, and there's no ignoring the pool of habanero-grapefruit butter that provides a persuasive kick to pieces of fried organic chicken (excellent, by the way). Cleverly, the menu includes a "simply prepared" section, offering most of the aforementioned proteins, and a few more besides, without the sauces; the spice-intolerant need not fear this place.
Vongerichten took inspiration from a 1925 Pump Room menu for the Wiener schnitzel, done in classic style but for a petite arugula salad that provides welcome sharp and acidic notes; and a split and roasted lobster, dusted with pepper and oregano, that's a value, even at $32. The chicken-liver pate, smeared on thick pieces of toasted ciabatta, might seem like an homage to yesteryear, but it's straight off the ABC menu (as is the similarly constructed crab toast, though I like the lemony crab dish better).
Nearly everything I tasted at Pump Room was solid, but I never quite got that "wow" feeling that I was eating something truly special. Right now, Pump Room is a very good restaurant with the potential to be a great one.
Pastry chef Kady Yon, last seen dishing up sweets at GT Fish & Oyster, is bringing the wow to the Pump Room's desserts. Yon's tradition-twisting work includes a beautifully rich, distinctively tangy creme fraiche cheesecake and a salted caramel sundae with candied peanuts, popcorn and chocolate sauce, that puts me in mind of a deconstructed Snickers.
The star dessert is the Pump Room Candy Bar, a self-contained chocolate homage that includes devil's-food cake, milk chocolate ganache, bittersweet chocolate mousse, cocoa nibs, white chocolate-enrobed crispy rice, chocolate-covered pretzels, quenelles of chocolate sorbet and cubes of passion fruit pate de fruits (how'd they get in there?). And Yon manages to make it pretty enough for a magazine cover.
The dining room is camera-ready as well, though the look couldn't be more different from the Pump Room of yore. Gone are the white tablecloths, replaced by grainy bleached-oak tables. Illuminated globes form a galaxy of soft light over the sunken dining room. Leather-wrapped booths speak to luxury; waiter outfits — black shirts and pants and Converse sneakers — deliberately do not.
Schrager's points of emphasis have been excellent service and great value, and the Pump Room delivers both. Most entrees are in the upper teens to mid $20s; portions are substantial. Ciabatta bread and olive oil appear unbidden at the table, along with a pair of breadstick-looking creations that are actually lengths of cheese-rich choux pastry.
Those who request doggy bags receive a claim ticket, their leftovers parked safely at the host stand. A minor gesture, perhaps, but just another indication that someone is putting some thought into this.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
1301 N. State Parkway; 312-787-3700
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open for: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday
Entree prices: $19-$38
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.
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