Photography: Anna Knott
The Boarding House could shatter under the weight of diners’ expectations. The four-story River North glitz-o-rama represents the latest chapter from master sommelier, writer, and TV personality Alpana Singh. Anything short of a smash hit would be disappointing. “But I thrive on meeting challenges,” says Singh, whose successful ten-year stint as host of WTTW’s Check, Please! officially ends in October. “It’s what propels me out of bed in the morning.”
She must be getting up pretty early. Though only three months old, TBH possesses the unmistakable sparkle and swagger of an eventual Chicago classic. A fresh-faced crowd holler-flirts over sidecars and cheese boards under a 9,000-wineglass chandelier on the first floor. In the gold-toned cellar, patrons canoodle with chilled chardonnays. Upstairs, they coo at the food. Christian Gosselin’s smooth dishes more than hold their own in the gorgeous multilevel dining room, a soaring hipster bordello illuminated by a brawny skyline view beyond bay windows.
Singh is betting heavily on Gosselin, a Quebec native and former chef de cuisine at Martial Noguier’s Bistronomic. Smart gamble. He tops sheets of jamón Serrano with braised radicchio and toasted hazelnuts and lays them on a wonderful spread of smoked ricotta. He hides impeccable hamachi crudo under pomegranate seeds, sprouts, fennel, and blood orange vinaigrette. His kitchen even reaches three-star territory with a rewarding grass-fed beef tartare with caper aïoli, pickled vegetables, and fried parsnip chips.
Beauty and nuance seep into most everything here, including a showstopping slow-poached citrus salmon with a blood orange beurre blanc atop tarragon polenta. But the same precision might surprise you in a double bone-in pork chop, caramelized yet ridiculously moist with cheddar grits, cipollini onions, and a vinegary slaw of Brussels sprouts and apple.
Lest you think The Boarding House is deadly serious, offerings also include fried chicken (brined, magnificent) and a chocolate-dipped oatmeal cookie sandwich (rich, bourbony). And the veteran staff’s confidence gives the whole operation an irresistible looseness. A flawlessly curated wine list leads with a quote from comedian Larry David: “Everybody brings wine. I bring bread.”
Sporadic misfires, such as leaden buttermilk biscuits, sludgy lobster poutine, and limp fried cumin cauliflower bites, remind you that the operation is still young. “Restaurants are a lot like children,” says Singh. “We still have a great deal of work to do.”
Perhaps, but The Boarding House is a kid under pressure to grow up fast. I look forward to marking its height on the wall over the years.