River North’s Gilt Bar is only the latest in a long line of new restaurants testing the limits of how much gastropubbery the market can bear. Nearly a year and a half after the Bristol and the Publican broke this ground, communal tables, shared plates, odd meats, and beer, beer, beer are everywhere, and if you haven’t had enough I have some marrow bones I can sell you at a 150 percent markup.
Chef-owner Brendan Sodikoff spent quality time under the wings of Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse in his early career, but his more recent assignments as corporate chef for Lettuce Entertain You and then in the kitchen of LEYE spawn Hub 51 didn’t inspire much confidence that Gilt would be anything more than a late leap onto a departing bandwagon.
But maybe I should give it a pass. Gilt is decidedly less beer-, pork-, and organ-focused than many of its gastropeers, so I assume the name doesn’t refer to young female swine—even if the look of the place is more weathered urban salvage than gilded. And while the menu’s hardly groundbreaking, there are enough simple, well-prepared, and fairly inexpensive dishes here to make me hope it can break the curse on the space that killed the likes of Pili Pili and Aigre Doux.
There are plenty of nods in the expected directions, but the meaty options don’t get any more threatening than a pot of duck-and-pork-liver paté or a six-inch-long marrow bone split lengthwise. Despite its unnervingly humanlike appearance, this is actually a very satisfying presentation of a dish that’s rapidly becoming a cliche: two convenient troughs with easy access to the precious meat jelly inside.
A selection of eight small, inexpensive vegetable plates tips the balance toward plant eaters. In a couple cases I found myself rebelling against Sodikoff’s minimalist approach and using them as add-ins for simply executed but one-dimensional pastas. The blackened cauliflower with red onion, capers, and chiles significantly increased my appreciation of a buttery pappardelle set with two coins of oversalted and overcooked scallop. And fluffy brown-butter ricotta gnocchi became a different and better dish when I tossed on some of the tart, clovey red cabbage slaw. Next time I’m applying the bean-and-chorizo-tossed kale to the cheesy pecorino-Parmesan pasta.
An overcharred Gunthorp half chicken said more care needs to be taken with that wood-burning grill. But a similarly blackened brick of disintegrating, tender pot roast was elementarily satisfying, as were a gooey bacon croque madame on hearty, chewy bread and roasted pork meatballs on Anson Mills white grits. When it comes to dessert, again, simplicity rules: in addition to sundaes with house-made ice cream and diner-style pies there’s a terrifically basic pecan-maple-bourbon blondie.
The management could have taken better advantage of the talents of cocktail consultant Paul McGee of the Whistler; the classics selected are certainly fine but for the most part make little use of his significant creative powers. Then again, Gilt’s crowd may not be ready for those. More than one fellow patron at the bar asked after my classic scotch-and-cherry-based Blood and Sand cocktail as if it were something straight out of the Mos Eisley Cantina. —Mike Sula
James An of the great Yunnanese restaurant Spring World is the man behind Tao Ran Ju, a splashy new spot on the lonely eastern edge of Chinatown Mall. Here he’s specializing in hot pots, with individual induction burners built into each place setting. This arrangement eliminates group quibbling over the choice of five individual soup bases, more than four dozen vegetable and meat add-ins, and an overwhelming array of condiments. But it also removes the most intimate and essential communal aspects of hot-pot cookery, which is said to date back to the days of Genghis Khan, and frankly, it’s a pain in the ass to dunk and keep track of the progress of the pot without the help of your tablemates. Still, if you want your own customized dried shrimp seafood broth and you want it with a la carte golden needle mushrooms, goose intestine, tofu puffs, and lamb slices—and your partner wants no part of that, preferring spicy soup base roiling with dried chiles and dates, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise, with fresh scallop, caraway, and pig’s blood—then this might be the place.
If not, though, don’t write Tao Ran Ju off by any means. Its greatest strengths—and there are some great ones—are found elsewhere on the menu. The xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are prepared by a chef An poached from the legendary Taiwan-based dumpling chain Din Tai Fung, and his output represents a significant advance for Chicago. The dough still tends to be a bit too thick, but inside each a meatball (pork or crab) swims in a pocket of hot, steamy soup. In several visits I wasn’t dealt a single soupless dud. (You’d think this would be a given—unless you’d ordered soup dumplings at practically anywhere else in town.)
The house special beef soup (niu rou mian), is one of the most fantastic noodle dishes I’ve had in Chinatown, loaded with long, thin, chewy noodles in a tangy broth with big, tender chunks of beef and a garnish of pickled vegetables. An has also duplicated his cold appetizer bar from Spring World, offering a selection of any four for $4.95, an astoundingly good value. There’s also a large selection of heavily seasoned grilled kebabs—lamb, beef, chicken, pig’s feet, quail, and more—a couple skewers of which will run you $3-$4.
There are better places for hot pot in Chinatown—the all-you-can eat Mandarin Kitchen, for one—but Tao Ran Ju’s secondary offerings make it a destination. —Mike Sula
[Editor’s note: Tao Ran Ju closed in spring 2012]
By mid-March, when it had been open just a few weeks, Franks ‘n’ Dawgs had caught the attention of local food blogs, press, and a couple TV stations. A gourmet sausage shop—why hadn’t someone thought of this before? Someone had, of course. The real question was why no one had seriously challenged Doug Sohn’s encased-meat eminence since he opened the game-changing Hot Doug’s more than six years ago.
But Franks ‘n’ Dawgs owner Alex Brunacci—whose brother, Frank, is the executive chef at Sixteen—is uncomfortable with the inevitable comparisons, pointing out that they, unlike Hot Doug’s, make several of their sausages in-house, and that in place of grill cooks there’s fine-dining talent in the kitchen.
Chef Joe Doren (Blackbird, Sixteen) has dreamed up some extraordinarily creative and powerful flavor combinations. The top-loader buns—locally baked pan de mie, buttered, griddled, and split along the upper length—permit a peek at tantalizing presentations like a lamb keema dog with English peas, cucumber salad, house-pickled pearl onions, and socca. Other combinations include the Tur-Doggen (turkey-and-date sausage with crispy duck confit, herby aioli, onion relish, and pickled carrots) and the N’awlins Dawg (andouille sausage with mustard ketchup, fried okra, shrimp, and chives). We were delighted by the Mystery Corn Dawg, a rotating sausage selection encased in unconventionally fluffy breading made with Anson Mills polenta, served with sauerkraut and two mustards.
In addition to offering a charitable dog of the month, Franks ‘n’ Dawgs is enlisting local chefs to oversee the creation of a signature sausage sandwich every month or so. Right now it’s the Foss Hog, a pork loin sausage with bacon, maple mayo, and a fried egg dreamed up by Phillip Foss of Lockwood. You can also get jumbo or junior 100 percent all-beef hot dogs, chili dogs, or chili-cheese dogs—but with so many unique wieners to sample, why would you want to? Sides are top-notch too, including a crisp, tart slaw with a hint of caraway and fresh-cut fries, beautifully bronzed outside, creamy inside. Want a beer with that? Like Hot Doug’s, it’s BYO. —David Hammond