By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
One of my 12 loyal readers accused me of never reviewing a restaurant I didn't love. "To be a restaurant critic," he said, "means sometimes you actually have to criticize something." Maybe, but if I am too generous with my reviews then I can't imagine what to think of Chicago Magazine's top 20 best new restaurant list.
At No. 8 is Acadia — the over-the-top, South Loop foodie, minimalist, geometric, vegetable place that is so cool it doesn't even have the name out front. Here's a hint: Avoid any place that includes foam as part of an entrée. The signature dish of lobster pot pie sounded great, but it really isn't a pot pie. It's a little bit of lobster in a white sauce with some peas, carrots and tarragon pommes with a biscuit. Good enough, but be ready to stop at the on-ramp at the Dan Ryan Expressway and Taylor Street for a pork chop sandwich and a pop.
Au Cheval made it at No. 10 and it is an interesting, nouveau Randolph Street offering with outstanding tunes, a great beer and specialty cocktail selection and a genuinely friendly staff of people, but you'd better like liver and brine.
The signature fried bologna sandwich is stacked high and rich enough to come with a side of Lipitor, but they jump the shark with the house special cocktail — twin shots, one of Jameson and the other of pickle brine, to be taken one after the other. When did Chicagoans start thinking it was OK to pop $6.50 for a shot of pickle juice?
I can't even write about No. 2-ranked Next, because I have never been there and since you have to get tickets online for the privilege of spending too much for too little food, I never will. Seriously, a lottery for a reservation?
I can write a little about Bar Toma, which barely made the list at No. 19. I wanted to like this cheery Streeterville place with its upscale bar feel and exposed concrete pillars. But the problem was that the food was kind of lousy. The menu aimed and missed for eclectic. It has livery spreads in mini-Mason jars, a la Purple Pig, but the jars are cumbersome, they tip over and the liver spread that we had must have been spiked with sawdust. I mock Au Cheval a little for being a liver-and-brine place, but man they have some good, creamy liver spread. Not Toma — and I'm not entirely sure that chicken liver spread is Italian bar food.
I would have liked to tell you about the drinks, but I can't because no one offered us any. Of the eight different food categories on the menu (55 things in all) most tried too hard and missed. From the skewer section we tried the Modenese — a sort of pork rind-wrapped sweetbread that came out gelatinous and gross enough to make Andrew Zimmern wrinkle his nose.
The Mozzarella Bar was a little confusing. I actually expected a bar where you saw, pointed and chose, but instead you get three little pieces of cheese and some nuts or pesto on a plank for $12. The cheese was fine, but nothing special. From the salad selection we picked beets and gorgonzola — an easy choice that was neither disappointing nor memorable. Little cubes of cold, pickled beets sat on sharp arugula with some crushed hazelnuts and cheese crumbles — a perfectly good, fresh choice on a hot day. So were the charred carrots, but the thing is, you don't see charred carrots much and maybe there is a reason for that. These came black-charred, prebathed in balsamic and a goo of goat cheese and would be a pretty tasty and reasonably healthy bar snack alternative. Interesting, but I doubt they are going to catch on. Lamb ribs came next, which were really short ribs rubbed with a spicy tamarind sort of mix — which our server described as traditional, Italian harissa and pomegranate. Harissa is a nice, spicy, tomato-based paste, but the only time it goes to Italy is when someone from North Africa brings it there. You had to like the server, though — like a lot of motion call lawyers — more certain than right.
The star is supposed to be the wood-burning, artisan pizzas at close to $20 a pop with lots of fancy ingredients. Like artisan pizzas from Domino's, we were sternly warned that toppings could not be mixed or matched. They were served as advertised, although it seemed a little odd that if they were just cooking them 20 feet away, they couldn't add a little basil or not put on some raisins, but that was the rule and as officers of the court we are rule-abiders. We chose the Calabrese with Becker Lane sausage — I have never been to Becker Lane, but I bet it's nice and they make a fine sausage — and the Lorenzo with crispy pancetta and basil. Both were very good. Neither were life-changing. In short, just like pretty good, wood-oven fired pizza in a lot of places.
This place might be worth another try, but top 20? I don't think so. Service was spotty, information not quite right and food trying too hard. The topper was waiting 20 minutes for the valet to get back from wherever he went to release our car. I am thinking he went out for lunch … someplace else.
110 E. Pearson St.
Verdict: One Gavel