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Review: Celeste

Do the stars align at dazzling new River North cocktail bar Celeste?

By Kate Bernot, @redeyeeatdrink

RedEye

12:00 AM CST, February 19, 2014

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Review: Celeste
111 W. Hubbard St. 312-828-9000
Rating: !!!! (out of 4) Already hot

Just like that, Celeste was open. The cocktail bar—located in the former Swirl Wine Bar space in River North—flew under the radar until Feb. 3, when owners finally unveiled the two-story bar they had spent three years creating. Given all that work, wouldn't the team want to throw a splashy, press-packed opening bash? Not at all. "In this day and age, you see photos of a place on [restaurant blog] Eater, and MenuPages has the menu before opening. A lot of times I feel like I've already been to a place that just opened," said Rafid Hindo, who co-owns the bar with his two brothers, Nader and Fadi. "We were trying to step away from that and have people come in with no expectations." Aside from two cocktail photos friends had posted on Instagram, I was in the dark about Celeste when I stopped in on a recent Saturday evening.

First impressions count.

Though its neighbors include Mercer 113 and NV Penthouse Lounge, Celeste shakes off the average downtown bar mantle like a woman slinking out of a robe. An attentive hostess greeted me as soon as I walked through the door and offered me and my friend the choice of seats at the first-floor bar or a table in the second-floor Deco Room. We started on the first floor facing the dramatically lit bar, but we couldn't help turning our heads to take in the ornate mirrors, intricate glass walls and understated light fixtures. The cocktail menu is adorned with delicate drawings of corsets and constellations and flowery phrases about a "muse" and "enchantress," but the gray-and-metal palette of the room reins in the femininity.

You're on a journey.

My friend and I visited both the first- and second-floor bars, ate a full meal and still felt as though we could have lingered longer. It's not that I wouldn't visit Celeste for a quick after-work cocktail, but it would be difficult to pry myself away after merely an hour. The first-floor bar offers what bartender Freddie Sarkis (formerly of Sable Kitchen & Bar) calls "approachable" cocktails, including classics such as the negroni and manhattan as well as original creations such as the compulsively drinkable, aromatic Roman Candle Fight ($10). The drink that's destined to become one of the bar's signatures, though, is the Golden Filigree ($10). Sarkis explained that the drink is a modified version of an 18th century milk punch recipe attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and it includes cognac, dark rum, bourbon and milk whey. It's a blend of dark spirits, but the Golden Filigree ends up clear in color due to the way it's heated and strained before cooling. The punch then is pumped with nitrogen dioxide (as opposed to carbon dioxide like soda), which lends it a velvety, creamy texture. If you've ever drank a beer that was poured "on nitro," you know what I mean. Confused by this science lesson? Don't think too hard about it—just try the drink.

Keep the night going.

Once I'd had my fill of the Golden Filigree, I ventured upstairs to the Deco Room. There, surrounded by chandeliers and twinkling, pearlescent surfaces, I made quick work of the elegantly plated burrata appetizer ($14), a pristine scallop crudo ($14) and a halibut entree ($26). Food can be an afterthought at cocktail bars, but what's coming out of the kitchen at Celeste could hold its own against many of the better restaurants in the neighborhood. The expanded cocktail list on the second floor is equally elegant. Organized by phases of the moon—waxing crescent, half orb, etc.—the drinks get more complex as the phases progress. Cocktail newbies might want to stick to the first few pages, though the entire menu describes each cocktail's flavor (spicy, bitter, boozy, herbal, etc.) The bartenders who served my friend and I also were helpful and easy-going when it came to explaining unfamiliar liquors or suggesting cocktails. Without their advice, for example, I likely wouldn't have ordered the Aztec Cold/Hot Chocolate ($13), a slightly spicy dessert cocktail that I still can't get out of my head.

Coming attraction: Owners won't disclose many details, but tease to a third-floor space and a garden in Celeste's future.

Bottom line

Stylish and charming, Celeste lives up to its sophisticated ambitions. Though its relatively quiet opening means the bar isn't yet packed wall-to-wall, I don't expect this stunner to stay a secret for long.

 

Reporters visit bars and restaurants unannounced and meals and drinks are paid for by RedEye. @redeyeeatdrink | kbernot@tribune.com

 

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