By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
You have to like the irony of Life's Too Short reopening as Estate. Actually Estate Ultra Bar, and while the full name is a little pretentious, the place isn't. Life's Too Short was a great Margaritaville dive on the river at Division Street and Elston Avenue that closed almost 10 years ago. I don't remember much, if any, about the food there, but it was a fun, offbeat place that, true to its name, died too soon and sat unused for too long.
An interior view of Estate Ultra Bar.
Photos provided by the restaurant.
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Estate is a little oasis with terrific beer and cocktail lists (even a tasty rum drink called Life's Too Short in homage) and really good food. The patio sits on the west bank of the Chicago River's north branch. Sure, the river could be a little cleaner, but it's getting better and more places like this will do nothing but help. Upstairs, the StarDeck roof bar opens at 6 p.m., very sleek and urban with bright orange, overstuffed cushions atop gleaming, white, wicker patio furniture made fully unpretentious with natural wood walls and archways and the same kind of composite decking that you might have at home. The deck has an open, green expanse over the river and gives you an amazing view of the skyline that looks close enough to touch.
Walk inside to a warm, open space with a traditional bar area that opens into comfortable and roomy seating, opening again to the downstairs patio just steps away from the water and dock. If you are lucky enough to have a boat on the north branch, here is your docking spot. Inside is a huge TV room with giant flat screens and big, cushy, black leather couches and recliners. It's sort of like the back bar area that one sixtyblue used to have, but four times the size and way more laid back.
Then, there is the food. Usually, food in places like this, not counting the cucumber in the Hendrick's martini, is overpriced and scant, bites that would leave runway models hungry. Not here. The best part of this great Estate is Chef Chris Turano and his unique spin on recognizable food, plus, no doubt because of his southern Italian family roots, his commitment to reasonable volume.
His presentations and use of flavors get all the gavels, but he gets a special nod for putting enough good stuff on the plates. Rock shrimp is light with crisp tempura and flash-fried shishito peppers and a special dipping sauce made of chili powder, garlic and honey — about 20 meaty shrimp to an $11 order. Tuna tartar comes big, cubed with a sesame and almost smoky flavor on five, silver dollar-sized tostados held loosely in place with lime cream and just enough chili threads for a little bite. Lobster mac is a big, comfort serving chock-full of sweet lobster — a great base for sharing, if not a little bland. The only down side was the light hand — on seasoning, but it's a lot easier to table-side spice up than down and the accommodating wait staff are happy to hook you up with some heat. Take the deviled eggs, for example; six, creamy half-eggs dotted with house-cured bacon bits, chives and a little crème fraiche and Tabasco, but you need enough Tabasco to put the devil in the eggs.
I'm a snob about chicken wings. I sort of think that the good people at the Anchor Bar got it right 50 years ago, and the rest of us shouldn't screw around with that magic. But Estate wings are a rare exception. Big, meaty, perfectly cooked (which is not a given — too many places give you either chicken tartar or sawdust), crispy and juicy and with I guess a "homemade hot sauce" with lots of citrus and a sneaky, delicious late kick. Some of the best wings in town.
From the salad section, we tried the heirloom beets: a meal-sized portion of big cubes of colorful beets served over baby spinach with a mixture of blood and navel oranges and a light, vinaigrette dressing.
Petite Sammies come three to an order, bigger than a slider, smaller than a Quarter Pounder, on interesting bread. The Angus Burger was roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head- short rib and brisket served with melted cheddar and Thai-spiced mayo. It has to be on the top 10, maybe five, small burger lists in town — preferably with something cold and delicious from neighboring Goose Island. Less impressive was blackened chicken with Gouda and avocado on a nice, brioche bun. Pork Belly is another required offering, but one that ought to go out of fashion soon. Here, it is root beer- and soy-glazed served on a sweet Hawaiian roll with too much kimchi cucumber — sort of a tiny luau on a bun. The flavor pulls it off, but pork belly, like the thick bacon it is, is impossible to cook any way but super crispy without leaving it fatty.
There are a few desserts that try too hard (cheesecake lollipops with pop rocks?), but not the churros — warm, sugary, fried dough doused in cinnamon. Perfect with the French-pressed coffee. If you don't have an "Estate plan," get one, and try this great place while the weather is still nice enough to enjoy the outside space.
Estate Ultra Bar
1177 N. Elston Ave., Chicago