The Ladies’ Room, at least in name, calls to mind an everlasting ladies’ night, designed to draw women into a meat-market bar scene with discounted drinks. But that’s far from what Fat Rice chefs Abraham Conlon and Adrienne Lo have delivered with their new cocktail lounge in the restaurant’s former waiting room—they’re interested in a more international flavor of sleaze. The bar is inspired by the gambling dens of Macau’s red-light district a century ago, places where hookers and drugs were easy to come by. (Both are in short supply here, but there are playing cards on the tables in case you’re determined to gamble.)
The Ladies’ Room may not have all the trappings of an authentic Macanese gambling parlor, but walking into the tiny space does feel a bit like being transported to another country. It’s tucked away behind a curtain, so well hidden from the also-new Fat Rice bakery (which you walk through to get to the bar) that the first server we asked didn’t seem to know it existed, instead directing me to the restaurant bar at Fat Rice. Heavy crimson curtains block outside light, allowing red bulbs to cast a rosy glow on walls plastered with pinup-style images of Asian women in varying degrees of undress.
With just 20 seats available only by reservation, the bar has certain similarities to the even tinier, ticketed Milk Room in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. But the two cocktail programs are quite different: while Milk Room is focused squarely on the classics, tracking down 50-year-old bottles of spirits and liqueurs to create rarefied boulevardiers and the like, the Ladies’ Room is busy reinventing them. The first section of the brief cocktail list is titled “Classics Reimagined,” which our waitress explained means taking a backward-engineered approach to cocktails like the negroni and manhattan, using house-made ingredients to create a drink with a flavor profile that’s similar to—but not quite the same as—the original. In the case of the White Negroni, the traditional gin and vermouth are there, but the Campari has been replaced by Malort and wild-lemon liqueur (both made in-house) for a drink with an intensely citrusy aroma and a piney herbal flavor that arrives seconds before the bitterness—which provides less of a kick in the teeth than Jeppson’s Malort but will still wake you up.
The menu’s other category for single-serving cocktails is “New Mad Style.” (There’s also a hot and a cold “tea for two” and two large-format cocktails for groups.) This grouping takes things even further off the rails by offering drinks like “Vermouth,” in which you’re presented all the ingredients for the fortified wine and combine them to your personal liking. A glass of Lagar de Darei Vinho Branco is joined by a small bowl of dried ingredients—clove, cinnamon, wormwood, orange peel, Thai basil bud, and marigold—and tiny vials of infusions, including citrus quinine liqueur, galangal vodka, matsutake artichoke extract, and orange chamomile bitters. It’s more of a fun experiment than a delicious one: by the time I’d gotten everything adjusted to my liking, tasting in between additions, the wine was mostly gone.
All those house-made liqueurs that make appearances in the cocktails are also available as a tasting flight, which is well worth it just to appreciate the chartreuse, which smells like chamomile and tastes of jasmine and herbs. The velvety creme de cassis is the essence of black currants, a revelation to anyone who’s only had the bottom-shelf variety.
The Ladies’ Room doesn’t make plum brandy, the main ingredient in the Onu You Didn’t, but it’s still essentially theirs: the cocktail’s namesake, Fat Rice’s Transylvanian janitor, Onu, has been making tuica (traditional Romanian plum brandy) for years. When Conlon tasted it he was so impressed that he partnered with CH Distillery to create Onu Tuica Romanesca from the janitor’s recipe. Combined with a plum shrub, umeboshi vinegar, and visinatå (sour-cherry liqueur), it’s light, floral, and savory, less sweet and fruity than you’d expect from a drink in which every ingredient involves plums or cherries. The Goan Calamando, though—a mildly creamy, tropical-tasting concoction involving feni (a cashew-fruit spirit from Goa, India), rum, and house-made roasted-almond orgeat syrup, among other things—is sweet and tart enough to be comparable to candy. The vessel it’s served in, shaped like a Japanese raccoon dog with a straw protruding from its throat and a sprig of mint sticking out of the back of its head, is a conversation piece in its own right.
Besides the cocktails, there are three beers from Belgium’s Brasserie de Rochefort, one cider, four wines by the glass and quite a few more by the bottle, and several pricey pours of hard-to-find spirits. The food menu, as eclectic as the drinks list, is limited to a few snacks, including heirloom tomato salad, curried vegetable samosas, crab chips, and the Macau rice crisp—a sort of Rice Krispies treat with nori, sesame, and pork floss.
For a bar with such a strong sense of place, the Ladies’ Room is all over the map, and that’s exactly why it works. The menu reads like its components were selected at random from the offerings of a dozen different bars; the cocktails include equally puzzling combinations of ingredients. You get the sense that the people in charge are just experimenting and having fun, making up their own rules along the way. Going along for the ride, it turns out, is a lot of fun too.
The Ladies’ Room, 2953 W. Diversey, 773-661-9170, eatfatrice.com