Over in Streeterville, the new Loews Chicago Hotel has surpassed the James Chicago (which houses David Burke’s Primehouse) for best-smelling lobby. The tantalizing aroma from Rural Society, Jose Garces’s rustic Argentine restaurant, hovers and lingers over every inch of ornate twisted metalwork in the adjacent two-story atrium. And the restaurant’s open grill—lined with crisping picanha, entraña, chuletas de cordero, and other cuts of animals that sound delicious—delivers on that promise.
The sprawling room features a rope ceiling, tufted booths, and cattle-related details. It must be the only space in town with one wall of wine bottles and another of chopped wood. The calculated vibe should please both the hotel’s transitory expense-account flesh gluttons and locals in search of a serious restaurant.
Most Argentine joints do meat well and pay lip service to everything else. Garces’s restaurants (Mercat a la Planxa, plus 17 other spots from coast to coast) respect a deeper culinary heritage. Rural Society’s chef, Cory Morris—dispatched from Mercat—works in Argentina’s Italian influences with mixed results. Atypical pastas, such as peppy crab-stuffed cannelloni with charred squid and tomato emulsion, get it right. The unfortunate fugazza (focaccia-like pizzas), such as a doughy choclo with crab shreds and roasted corn and peppers beneath a gloppy Asiago layer, do not.
Bad pizzas at an Argentine restaurant are one thing, but bad empanadas would qualify as a tragedy, or maybe a comedy. Rural Society’s empanadas—whether filled with braised wagyu beef belly and a smoked chili or with Swiss chard, oozy sardo cheese, and roasted onions—are bulbous and wonderful. Other unexpected standouts crop up, such as tangy Paraguayan sopa de bori bori (Parmesan dumpling soup with floating nubs of pork belly). Even a side of wood-roasted, cider-glazed carrots, mingling with goat cheese and fennel, manages to surprise.
Now the grill. Rural Society assembles international all-stars—tenderloin from Uruguay, jidori chicken from Japan, trout from Tasmania, pork from Iowa, lamb from Colorado, and lobster from Maine—and throws them on the parrilla. When the white oak and charcoal work their magic, you get heaven. The entraña, a shockingly tender 15-ounce skirt steak sliced tableside, and juicy bife de chorizo (a 12-ounce grass-fed rib eye) are both cuts meant to be grilled: a perfect charred edge balances the powerful flavor that makes South American beef famous. The costillas de tira, 20 ounces of grass-fed bone-in short ribs, get slow-cooked until they’re so juicy that you forget the homemade chimichurri. As for the lobster, all apologies to David Foster Wallace, don’t consider it.
Rural Society’s lovable waitstaff work hard without appearing to. They may be the last non-BYO servers in Chicago who don’t relentlessly push drinks, though they certainly could, especially the panoply of dense and dark Malbecs, such as the Ricardo Santos ($52 a bottle). Appealing desserts, such as the thick dulce de leche flan with shaved chocolate and a mango sorbet, push themselves.
Rural Society lures Loews guests with its beefy scent, and the meat parade satisfies. But the polished operation, similar to the country that influenced it, has far more to offer than carnivorous thrills. In other words, this is no bait and switch: It’s bait, and more bait.