Let’s get personal for a minute; you know how certain restaurants just hit all your buttons, and keep you coming back over and over again? Since the day it opened, Cherry Circle Room (located inside the Chicago Athletic Association hotel) has been one of those spots for me, and I’ve dined there more times than I can count. However, the restaurant had a particularly long pandemic hiatus, and is just now getting its feet back under it, complete with a new culinary staff, a partially new menu, and some great drinks.
If you’re a long-time fan of Cherry Circle Room, don’t worry; some of your favorites (including what I insist entirely non-scientifically is the best steak tartare in the city) are still on the menu. But executive chef Fred Noinaj, assisted by chef de cuisine Alisha Elenz, is trying to remake the entire experience into something a little bit lighter (and maybe a touch less formal).
Noinaj spent many years at another spot owned by the same restaurant group, running the kitchen at Lost Lake. But he’s not new to Cherry Circle Room; he actually worked there during the restaurant’s first year of operation, while the kitchen at Lost Lake was recovering from a fire. Things have changed a bit since he was first there. “At opening, there were a lot of beautifully composed dishes and tableside sauce pours,” remembers Noinaj. “Now maybe a little less touching of people’s plates is preferred.”
With assistance from Elenz (who was recently the chef at mfk), Noinaj is redesigning the Cherry Circle Room menu to be a little bit more plant-focused. The giant dry aged ribeye for two is still on the menu, but now there are also dishes like an intensely savory combination of ramps, asparagus, pistachio pesto, and Benton’s ham, topped with grated pickled eggs. “It’s secretly a nod to Chicago old school dive bars, where there would just be pickled eggs hanging out,” says Noinaj. “The topping is a surprise; it gives the dish a cheesy texture.”
A roasted carrot appetizer, served with chickpeas, black olives, and dill is so savory that meat eaters won’t notice that it’s vegan. A new extra-thick pork chop is brined in the same manner as ham, finished on the grill, and served with a sweet-salty tamarind-sumac glaze and finished with a green garlic mostarda.
It’s not just the food that’s getting a little bit of a makeover; some of the drinks at the property are too. The long-running tableside Manhattan program (which was briefly replaced this winter by a great design-your-own-old-fashioned) is going to be changed out for summer to include a variety of daiquiris. Over at the high-end bar Milk Room, some of the heavier stirred drinks are being switched out to include more options based on agave spirits and rum. And with one of the most extensive sparkling wine lists in the city (curated by sommelier Anika Ellison), it’s easy to drink a bit lighter.
If you were a fan of the pre-pandemic Cherry Circle Room, have no fear; it’s not dramatically different. The awesome old-school atmosphere, the custom serving plates, and the intimate booths are still there; you just don’t have to leave so full you want to stagger upstairs to a waiting hotel room. That is, unless you want to.