Now that small plates have been officially pronounced dead, welcome to the hottest restaurant trend to hit Chicago: the British-inspired gastropub. If you’re thinking that it must mean a pub with food beyond bangers and mash, you’re getting close. Case in point: THE GAGE, across the street from Millennium Park. Holabird & Roche fashioned the façade of the Gage Building in 1898, and Billy Lawless Jr. and Sr., natives of the County Galway, Ireland, reimagined the interior as a big, handsome restaurant and tavern. Junior’s previous venture in Chicago was an Irish pub called The Grafton, and Senior owns The Irish Oak, so it’s safe to say Guinness runs in their blood.
A converted hat warehouse in the building retains a 1930s industrial look in several rooms. A 50-foot-long oak bar with illuminated beer taps frames the largest room, which also features wood tables and polished wood booths under a tin ceiling. Nice, but that room is bloody noisy. The dining area farthest back is quieter and has a partitioned-off open kitchen under lantern-like drop fixtures.
Executive chef Dirk Flanigan (Meritage, Blue Water Grill) is all over the place on his menu, from a traditional heavy-as-lead Scotch egg with mustard to a tender roasted lamb chop with delicious lamb stew vindaloo and baby vegetables. These offerings cover a wide range of prices, an attractive feature. Beer is central to the meal, so a friend and I enjoyed a round or three from the selection of ten drafts-a Fat Tire from Fort Collins, Colorado, for example. The beer worked with another dish in punchy vindaloo sauce, this time bathing a generous portion of terrific mussels; our waiter brought soup spoons to finish the spicy broth, which saved me the embarrassment of drinking it directly out of the bowl. A greasy, tough crouton threatened to spoil the party. (It failed.) Caramelized lobster medallions over lemon quinoa seasoned with basil and chili also hit the Pow! spot on my palate.
The Gage takes its hamburgers seriously. The prime burger on a toasted malt roll with soft onion marmalade is a doozy, although its flavor was almost buried by the local Camembert melted onto it. The crisp Guinness-battered fish and chips is served in a traditional rolled newspaper, and, as with the burger, the kitchen is not stingy with the tasty fries. A tad more ambitious was the iron pot holding flawless roasted citrus-flavored Amish chicken over green beans tossed with melting goat cheese, and even more surprising was a terrific roast saddle of elk with juniper berry–rosemary demiglace and mashed potatoes. That’s a long, long way from pub grub.
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Jerry Kleiner has done over-the-top French décor at Marché, Chinese at Opera, and Latino at Carnivale-so why not a restaurant that looks like a bordello? ROOM 21, at the outer edges of the South Loop, does just that. Walls painted to look like curlicue-patterned red velvet, an old oil painting of a leopard, chandeliers, and red leather banquettes made me wonder what our waitress would suggest for the special of the day. The space has other disreputable references: the building is a former Capone liquor warehouse and speakeasy where Eliot Ness and his crew of Untouchables made a big bust in 1930, seizing 200,000 gallons of illegal booze. Kleiner plays up the legend: the restaurant’s name comes from an inscription on a door at the end of an escape tunnel that his renovation crew discovered last fall.
Room 21 is not a chef-driven place but another of Kleiner’s Cirque de Cuisines-it’s not about the food, baby; it’s about the scene. Despite early chef changes, the contemporary American menu remains largely intact for now, one that’s decidedly more subdued than the setting; it’s obviously designed to appeal to a broad base. Our first meal got off inauspiciously with a basket of several breads and rolls so hard it became a game to see who could first tear one open. The rolls were vastly superior on the trio starter of prime steak sliders-competition for the White Castle a few doors south. I also liked the thick, slightly retro tomato bisque, which possessed a deep roasted tomato flavor. The salad of frisée, Nueske’s bacon, and brioche would have worked if the egg had not been cooked so firm that it couldn’t be mixed into the greens. (On a later visit, fingerling potatoes stood in for the brioche, and the egg yolk ran nicely. Both, improvements.)
Nueske’s bacon also appears on the 12-ounce burger with Wisconsin Cheddar and addictive fries. My only problem with such a huge burger is how to take a bite without dislocating my jaw. The good seared tuna niçoise with baby lettuces and tarragon was less dangerous, and lighter. Five steaks, from steak Diane to prime rib eye, line the menu; they’re properly cooked and fine, if not earth-shaking. Unless you’re desperate for beef, skip them in favor of the glazed jumbo pork chop with fennel purée and spätzle, and match it with a 2002 Truchard Carneros syrah ($55). Or, if you feel like fish, you could do worse than the roasted halibut with mushrooms and corn purée.
Clever of the kitchen to include a red velvet cake on the menu; not so clever that mine was dry on two visits. And a texture-challenged sorbet so lacked taste that I never figured out what flavor it pretended to be. When the room is full, servers can be overwhelmed; Lord knows how many staffers it takes to cover the massive room and the huge outdoor patio. But Kleiner’s never done anything small.
THE GAGE 24 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-372-4243
Model meal Mussels in vindaloo sauce; roast saddle of elk; lemon meringue cake Tip No valet, and Millennium Park parking is $22. Ask if they have any cheaper suggestions, or take a cab. Hours Lunch dinner daily. Tab (dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $55.
ROOM 21 2110 S. Wabash Ave.; 312-328-1198
Model meal Tomato bisque; glazed pork chop; glass of sambuca Tip Side of creamy Parmesan corn is delicious Hours Dinner nightly. Tab (dinner per person, without wine, tax, or tip) $50 to $55.