Walk in the door and you feel as though you're in yet another of the sports-and-lounge melds that have been popping up lately; Quay's front room, which has the seductive lighting and sleek design of a club but with plasma TVs absolutely everywhere, has just that feel.
In between is Quay's 100-seat dining room, where cream leather chairs pull up to polished wood tables. A curved gray banquette, support columns wrapped with interior-lit laminated parchment and curvy walls with byzantine perforated insets contribute to a womblike environment that shields diners from the nearby lounge action.
The environments aren't completely disconnected; however subtly, there's wavy element common to all three spaces that ties into the space's waterfront location (quay means wharf, after all). But what really helps is that the food, produced by chef Nolan Narut (recently sous-chef at David Burke's Primehouse) is solid and reliable — comfort food with a bit of style.
The dining room's elegance had me bracing for some menu sticker shock, but in the first of many pleasant surprises, Quay's prices don't terrify. Yes, there's a list of steaks at predictably high numbers (though $32 for an aged N.Y. strip ain't bad), but the seafood main courses are in the mid-$20s, and the budget-minded can retreat to the vegetarian ravioli or pan-roasted chicken, both $14.
My happiest experiences have been seafood-related. An excellent piece of halibut received great balance from a topping of charred rapini and a surrounding moat of smoked beans and bacon. Three hefty seared scallops with braised short ribs made a soul-satisfying surf and turf, with the added bonus of sweet parsnip puree. The whimsical fish fry would be utterly boring, were it not for the upgrade of panko-crusted scallops and shrimp embedded with the cod. And the accompanying shoestring fries were very good.
Trio of crispy fried oysters on beds of shaved fennel, topped with a smidgen of preserved lemon, made an artistic first course, but even better are the ale-steamed mussels, accented with lemon grass and chunks of chorizo. Flatbread pizzas need work; the goat cheese and mushroom version was bland and mealy.
Side dishes are generally unnecessary, because there's so much on the plates to begin with, but I'd make an exception for the signature mac and cheese, an addictively cheesy creation fleshed out with pieces of pulled pork and graced with a spicy chipotle undertone. I'd go back to Quay just for that.
Desserts, by pasty chef Maria Selas, are good to outstanding. I really liked the "upside down" Key lime tart, a bowl of Key lime custard topped with oatmeal streusel crumbs (subbing for graham cracker) and a bit of white-chocolate cremeux; the pistachio macaroon to the side is a cute touch.
There's also a twist on PB&J with peanut butter mousse on a graham cracker base, along with a smear of strawberry jelly on the plate and a chocolate-dipped potato chip jutting from the mousse.
The dessert that failed to excite me was the banana tres leches, which tasted fine but was too firm and dry; somebody owes me at least one leche.
The wine list covers the bases, albeit briefly, but is slowly building. Already on my last visit there were a few bottles not available previously, and even better, our waiter knew to mention them.
Service indeed has its moments, though it could use a few more. Our first waiter was intermittently attentive in an odd sort of way, and when I asked a different waiter about the steaks, he pretty much just mentioned the cuts, saying nothing about the beef quality, aging or anything. I'm all for low-key salesmanship, but this approached indifference.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
465 E. Illinois St., 312-981-8400
Tribune rating: Two Stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday