River Roast, the nine-month-old New American spot in River North, makes a first impression that’s about as personal as a telemarketing call. On one visit, I entered the 23,000-square-foot leviathan to be greeted in an empty bar area by a sign pointing me to the dining room downstairs. I’ve been to more welcoming funerals.
But then a funny thing happened. I descended past a porcelain cow to the corporate-looking dining space (formerly Fulton’s on the River and now a mishmash of textured lamps, giant windows with panoramic views for gaping tourists, and rustic hardwood emblazoned with the restaurant’s insignia) and found that the food was actually good.
And rightfully so. Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia) and John Hogan (Keefer’s), two guys who know how to cook, launched their menu last July with crowd-pleasing snacks like Golden Gobbets, hunks of tender chicken thigh brined in buttermilk and deep-fried, and a first-rate Scotch egg, a sausage-y behemoth with pickled mustard seeds and red onions.
Every menu item seems engineered to satisfy the hordes. Pork meatballs with tomato sauce and ricotta gnocchi? Easy eating. The assertive “Chicago-style sashimi,” with all manner of supporting goodies, functions as a sort of seared beef salad. Then you’ve got obligatory charcuterie, pickles, and things on toast, like the bright crab and shrimp duo with an avocado purée. When Hogan gets fancy, as in the light lobster terrine wrapped in scallion—also meant to be spread on thick grilled bread—he still brings the kind of folksy slant bound to make diners happy.
And River Roast takes its name literally, relying on a variety of high-end ovens to work its magic on chicken, cow, pig, fish, and any other beast that gets near the kitchen. On one visit, I ordered fried branzino. It arrived deboned and impaled on a skewer, which meant my party gleefully stuck it with our forks and flaked off lovely crunchy-soft chunks. But on another visit, I got a fatty eight-ounce roast beef carved tableside into medallions with too-sweet jus. My favorite: the succulent chicken, which had been cold-smoked to seal in the moisture and served atop crisp potatoes. Every now and then, a shard of chicken skin broke free and landed on the potatoes, and if I got to it first, life was good.
Desserts lean to such things as root beer floats, fruit pies, and lemon trifle with fresh berries—all fine, none earth-shattering. No one takes great chances at River Roast, but that’s not the point. The sheer, cold immensity of the space, which includes a waterfront patio, two bars, and six private event areas, has obviously been designed with a different agenda. But every time the young and enthusiastic servers brought out a wishbone with the check and implored me to make a wish, I surprised myself by wishing the same thing : that RR was smaller, warmer, and in my neighborhood.