Red Door

French toast with fois gras, asparagus and duck confit at Red Door in Bucktown (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye / May 10, 2012)

Recently shuttered spots Duchamp in Bucktown and In Fine Spirits in Andersonville are miles apart, but they had plenty in common: Both were well-loved for their patios, well-mixed cocktails and shareable, snackable fare. And this spring, both spaces have taken on brand-new identities.

The owners of In Fine Spirits chucked the wine bar vibe to switch gears to fine dining and hired former Graham Elliot chef de cuisine Brian Runge to lead the charge at Premise, now open since mid-April. Duchamp was bought by a new set of owners and opened last week as Red Door, with chef Troy Graves in the kitchen. Tempted by the globally inspired flavors at both restaurants, we sat down for a taste.

Mini-review: Red Door
2118 N. Damen Ave. 773-697-7221
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start

The background: After Bucktown favorite Meritage shuttered in 2007, chef Troy Graves bounced around a bit, running the kitchen at now-closed Tallulah and Eve and briefly consulting at Cantina 46. So Red Door, located in the former Meritage space (which later became Duchamp) seems like a comfortable homecoming for Graves.

Why it's a tavern: The small space is dominated by a hardwood bar and high-top tables, providing a prime view of the bartenders' choreography. Signature cocktails ($9-$12) play with eclectic ingredients such a sweet-and-tart caramelized blood orange slice in the Luna Rossa, or yuzu and shiso (Asian citrus and mint) in an eastern spin on the southern julep. The cocktails are so complex that I felt they demanded my undivided attention, so during a meal, I'd go for one of the European or American microbrews off the beer list.

Why it's a restaurant: Graves takes risks with familiar dishes such as ricotta gnocchi ($8), which has a slightly gummy texture that's redeemed by perfectly charred escarole and bright golden raisins and tangerine. Generally, international flavor mash-ups are a success, as with the delicate, plump buttermilk-fried oysters ($8) with a crunchy kimchee garnish. Sometimes, though, dishes could be streamlined. Asparagus and an unnecessary pile of shaved frozen foie gras distract from the crisp duck leg confit that accompanies decadent brioche French toast ($16). When in doubt, stick with the simpler menu items.

Bottom line: There's equal reason to come here for a drink or for a multi-course meal, both of which would taste even better on the sprawling fenced-in patio, open any night the weather's warm. Though the menu hops all over the globe, dishes are generally balanced enough to prevent culinary jet lag. --Kate Bernot

---

Mini-review: Premise
5420 N. Clark St. 773-334-9463
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start

The scene: The new wood-slatted facade of Premise makes it look like an old-timey tavern, but inside, the coat-checking hostess and rows of stark white high-backed chairs will clue you into the fact that it's much more a restaurant than a bar.

Sizing up the food: Dishes are available a la carte, but chef Brian Runge is focusing on multi-course dinners. Starting this week, you can choose from three ($50), five ($65) or eight ($90) courses. If you go in wanting to split a couple appetizers with a friend, you'll be hungry—it's not that kind of place.

Likes: For a first course, little globes of honeydew melon with cucumber, candied peanuts and buttermilk ($11) make a springy take on a salad, while fava bean agnolotti ($16) with smoky ham and meaty morel mushrooms was just the right mix of salty and rich. As for entrees, golden brown cod ($24) with briny clams and curly fronds of fiddlehead fern was a surprising but satisfying combo. Gorgeously ruby-red rare slices of lamb ($26) rocked with crispy fried chickpeas, baby zucchini, spicy Greek yogurt and green almonds—airy, refreshing morsels that tasted like cucumber seeds blown up into little balloons. The lengthy cocktail menu for which In Fine Spirits was known has been replaced by a shorter list of classics ($10-$11), but the barrel-aged negroni with a chunk of hand-chipped ice proves the place still has cocktail chops.

Gripes: The only dish I didn't love was the carrot cake ($10) with pea gelato (peas and carrots, get it?), which lacked the spice and richness I expected from a twist on such a traditional dessert. Servers were pleasant and confident but mistaken at times (they said the clams were oysters and the green almonds were zucchini) and my not-quite-finished drink was snatched away without asking (my biggest dining pet peeve).

Bottom line: There are wrinkles to smooth out as Premise gets into its groove, but most everything on the plate left my taste buds happy. The only thing I'm unsure about is whether diners will feel comfortable indulging in multi-course dinners in a room that, despite efforts to the contrary, still kind of feels like a bar. It works for Longman & Eagle in Logan Square, but whether it'll fly in Andersonville is anyone's guess. --Lisa Arnett

Reviewers visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. lmarnett@tribune.com | @redeyeats