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At RPM Seafood, the Cocktail Menu Shines

Clear palomas? Nonalcoholic Pimm’s Cups? The latest addition to the RPM dynasty is serving up innovative elixirs in an unexpected setting.

RPM Seafood drinks, from left to right: Crystal Paloma, Down the Rabbit Hole, and the Kashmir Club   PHOTO: JOHN STOFFER

The latest spot in Lettuce Entertain You’s RPM brand officially debuted last week. RPM Italian opened in 2012, RPM Steak followed it in 2014, and now the newest sibling, RPM Seafood, is open for business in Near North (317 N. Clark St.). Hewing to its spirit of “affordable luxury” (as co-owner R.J. Melman describes the brand), RPM Seafood has super fresh fish and a surprisingly innovative cocktail program for reasonable prices.

I say “surprisingly” not as a dig at the rest of the RPM restaurants, but more as an acknowledgement that they really haven’t been known for their cocktails. RPM Italian has always had great wine, and RPM Steak makes an excellent martini, but the drink menu was never super innovative.

That changed when mixer Ben Schiller was hired to oversee cocktails for the entire group. Schiller, who has done time at almost every great bar in town, wasn’t hired to just pour martinis. He was tasked to come up with a cocktail menu that fit the food at a seafood spot — no easy task. Fish, which tends to have delicate flavors, can be difficult to match with cocktails; something too strong or high-proof will burn your palate and you won’t be able to taste the food.

“We went with a lot of clear spirits and citrus,” Schiller explains. “We went especially heavy on agave because we found it so versatile.”

The restaurant’s signature drinks are, in fact, all agave-based, and while they might sound simple, they require some pretty intense mad scientist tricks. Take Schiller’s version of a paloma, a classic cocktail that combines grapefruit soda and tequila. His is called a “Crystal” paloma and is perfectly transparent. How? First, he clarified the grapefruit using agar agar. Then, using an ultra-low temperature medical-grade freezer, he got the tequila so cold that the water began to freeze out of it, allowing him to remove the water and replace it with the clarified grapefruit.

“Think of it like a reduction, but using cold instead of heat,” Schiller says. “It’s ultra-intense.” (The crystal paloma also happens to be the most popular drink on the menu.)

This scientific approach extends to the nonalcoholic cocktails as well, a section of the menu that Schiller took particularly seriously. “We really embraced these,” he says. “We didn’t want to have a section of our menu that we just took a knee on.”

Instead of just combining some juices into a mocktail, Schiller created a nonalcoholic version of Pimm’s No. 1, a gin-based liqueur. To do this, he used an induction burner that could be set at a very precise temperature so the alcohol in the Pimm’s burned off but the remaining ingredients didn’t change. Then, he made a Pimm’s cup with raspberry syrup, cucumber, and watermelon. The flavor is still there — all that’s missing is the booze.

RPM Seafood is part of a larger complex of Lettuce properties in the building, which includes Pizzeria Portofino (which I covered a few months ago ) and RPM Events, the new special events space that seats 300. Right now, RPM Seafood is only doing dinner. Sometime in April, the restaurant will start offering lunch, with an eye toward eventually offering weekend brunch.

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