Fulton Market Kitchen

Scallop crudo at Fulton Market Kitchen (April 4, 2014)

Review: Fulton Market Kitchen
311 N. Sangamon St. 312-733-6900
Rating: !!! (out of four) Off to a good start

***

QUICK HITS

Loved it: The large first-come, first-served lounge. It's nice to have someplace in the neighborhood that you can come for just drinks and a bite to eat without being turned away for not having a res.

Hated it: My too-small table. There was no way for my group for three to fit our sharing plates, cocktails, the oversized book menu and then more than a dish or two at the same time. It was like a game of Jenga for the wait staff to fit everything.

Deja vu: Remember those creepy skeleton marionettes from Angels & Mariachis, the Wicker Park hangout that managing partner Daniel Alonso ran before turning it into the current concept, Black Bull? Alonso had artist Franklin Riley repurpose them into an equally creepy but very cool sculpture in the hallway near the restrooms.

Head-scratcher: Since the menu is fairly polished—think crudos, carpaccios and tartares--it felt odd that our server's first recommendation was the fries ($7). They're good, but nothing to brag about compared to The Publican's famous frites a few paces down Fulton Market.

*** 

A mix of art galleries and big-name restaurants mixed in with meatpacking plants is what makes the West Loop a destination. After living in the neighborhood for nearly a decade, Daniel Alonso (of Wicker Park tapas bar Black Bull) partnered up with former Victor Hotel owner Relu Stan to turn that space into his own mixed-media creation.

Victor Hotel was a club, not a hotel, and Fulton Market Kitchen is on Sangamon Street, not Fulton, but stay with me here. When it came to filling this massive, high-ceilinged, multi-roomed bar and restaurant, Alonso enlisted a legion of local artists and was inspired by everything from the '80s art scene in New York to the Wynwood Walls, a series of street-art murals in Miami, he said. I dropped in on opening weekend to see whether the ideas came together.

SIGHTS
"What I was naturally fearful of is … [oftentimes] when artwork is displayed in a cafe or a bar or a restaurant, it feels very decorative," said Alonso. "It's kind of like, four paintings and there's an artist's note underneath … 'oil on canvas, call for price.' I want it to be a very integrated part of the overall design." By combining forces with Alex Morales of Smartmouth Designs and Franklin Riley of FM Gallery, Alonso managed to make the space and art feel one and the same, from a massive mural by graffiti artist Erni Vales to a trio of works by Hebru Brantley above a pair of massive wooden carriage doors. At a trendy art gallery opening, sometimes the scene—with creative types mingling and wine flowing freely—is just as interesting as what's on the walls. That's how it felt here after dark, as the dinner crowd gave way to cocktail dresses and cleavage, fashionable dudes working leather blazers and an appearance from party scene fixtures the Landan twins.

SMELLS
I can forgive the cutesiness of the naming the courses first, second and third "canvases." I can even tolerate the cocktail menu being sectioned off into "Renaissance" for classics and "Modern: First gallery showings" for funky creations such as the beet juice-based Beetlejuice Beetlejuice ($12). But I don't think the owners were quite thinking it through when they glued the menu pages inside art history books from the '60s. Novel idea in theory, but what actually happens is the whole table smells like an old, dusty library every time you open a menu. There's nothing less appetizing than your hands smelling like eau de old book when you lift your cocktail to your lips or snatch the last fry from the table.

TASTES
Our server recommended that each person order a first, second and third course for dinner, which will run about $50-$75 per person, not including drinks or tip. If you're not in the market or mood for a full three-course dinner, as my table was, you can share and snack on a handful of plates instead. Executive chef James Gottwald (former Rockit Ranch Productions culinary director) is behind the food menu; like a stroll through an art museum, some things dazzled while others just didn't do it for me. Scallop crudo ($12), with its thin slivers of ruby beet and coral grapefruit plus a sprinkle of pink peppercorn, looked like a work of art but lacked the zing or zip that makes a good crudo. I actually dug the other scallop appetizer—which the kitchen mistakenly sent out instead and our server apologized for on the spot—much more, with its deep-fried nuggets of bay scallop and sweetbreads matched with lemon, rich truffle aioli and salty tobiko. A too-heavy char on the grilled octopus ($13) overpowered the tomatoes, vinaigrette and frisee it was served with, but rye-crusted salmon with braised red cabbage, pickled onions, fried capers, dill and creamy yogurt ($24) had my whole table raving.

SIPS
Fulton Market Kitchen could have done what so many restaurants do and roll out a short cocktail menu that riffs on the classics. Instead, the cocktail menu is bigger than the food menu—and as far as new hangouts go, is only rivaled by recently opened Celeste in its length and creativity. Skinny margarita types can up their game with the What's Up Doc ($12), a carrot-ginger-lemon-tarragon concoction that sounds straight out of a juice bar, plus vodka. Whiskey drinkers can expand their palates with the cinnamon- and anise-laced Odd Job ($12). For those who want to drink their dessert, there's the Two Month Holiday ($11), a pint of a Lion stout from Sri Lanka and a house-made Irish cream shot, or the Trust Fall ($12), a creamy cognac confection with a sea salt rim. Even the highballs (five choices, all $10)—simple cocktails consisting of a spirit, mixer and ice (like scotch and soda)—will keep you guessing with funky combos such as Peter and the Wolf made from herbal Fernet Branca with root beer, or smoky mezcal with Jarritos lime soda in the awesomely named Ecto Non-Cooler ('80s kids, are you with me?). I couldn't find a mixologist's name credited anywhere on the menu, but options such as the F-Mkt-K Mixology—a Coors Banquet can and Heaven Hill bourbon for $5—made it clear that whoever created the drink menu doesn't take things too seriously. It turns out the brains behind the booze is beverage director Brian Sturgulewski, a Drumbar bartender who is transitioning to Fulton Market Kitchen full-time. (P.S. You might recognize him as a 2014 Best Bartender finalist.)

BOTTOM LINE
I've seen art-themed hangouts fall flat—Gallery Bar in River North and Fame in Wicker Park when they opened last summer come to mind—but Fulton Market Kitchen manages to harness the energy of a can-it-get-any-hotter neighborhood. Though this isn't the first place I'd return to for a full dinner in this part of town, I could see coming here for cocktails after dinner on Randolph Street to or to dazzle out-of-town guests with the artsy ambiance. Considering that the West Loop bubbling over with even more development—Soho House, Nobu Hotel and Restaurant and Google's future Chicago headquarters, to name a few projects in the works—Fulton Market Kitchen is poised to keep the party going.

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