The kids today don’t understand how big a deal the Pump Room once was. Imagine if every celebrity at any moment was dining at the same restaurant in Chicago: Brad and Angelina over here, Jay-Z and Beyoncé over there. Lady Gaga flirting with Prince William in the lounge. And throngs of lucky looky-loos jockeying for position, day and night.
In recent years, more than one restaurateur has blown the dust off the magical Gold Coast space in hopes of recapturing its glamorous vibe. All have failed. Such an atmosphere is no longer possible, because no single establishment can enjoy that kind of monopoly now, but also because most stars, unless they’re named Kardashian, do not hide in plain sight anymore. So Ian Schrager, a celebrated New York hotelier, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a culinary god, went in another direction. Schrager reimagined the Ambassador East as a chic modern hotel called Public Chicago, and Vongerichten recast his popular New York spot ABC Kitchen for local palates. Then they banked on the famous name. “Chicagoans are more nostalgic for the Pump Room than for any restaurant in Chicago,” says Vongerichten. “This is like a new picture of an old friend.”
The new picture is striking: a cream-toned space dominated by more than 100 hanging celestial orbs, bleached-oak tables, and swanky leather chairs. Servers, clad in black with Chuck Taylor sneaks, are of the skinny, tattooed ilk. The effect is dramatic but not showy—and the food shoots for the same target. It hits more often than it misses. Vongerichten and Bradford Phillips (formerly of LM Le Restaurant) loaded the menu with accessible fare, such as carpaccio pizza and organic fried chicken, and Pump Room classics, like a lightly breaded Wienerschnitzel with a lovely tomato salad. (Who dares to do Wienerschnitzel?)
Potential throwaways shine, as in the parmigiano-topped tagliatelle with Brussels sprouts on pistachio pesto. And the menu boasts one of the best appetizers of 2011, a crisp, warm Italian bread layered with chicken liver and fried sage: so rich that butter oozes into your gums.
Not everything works. The salt-and-pepper shrimp doesn’t have much of either, and the menu’s overreliance on chili peppers smacks of overcompensation. (Vongerichten: “The last bite has to be as exciting as the first.”) But a juicy salmon, after roasting slowly in a custom-made convection oven, gets shot full of steam and sided with wonderful potato purée and black bean vinaigrette. And desserts may be the Pump Room’s calling card. Kady Yon (lured from the Boka Restaurant Group) gives us what we want: homemade cookies, deconstructed candy bars, and irresistible treats like an airy crème fraîche cheesecake with rose meringue.
Of course, the Pump Room is still a scene. I spotted Mayor Emanuel one night, shaking everyone’s hand but mine. But it’s not about star wattage so much as providing a Gold Coast hangout for Chicago’s anonymous rich. “We had 120 for lunch today,” Vongerichten said shortly after the grand opening in October. “Maybe 110 of them were women from the neighborhood.” Some of the clientele in the dining room and arched lounge (see “A Night Out: Pump Room’s Bar”) seem oblivious to the space’s history; others are thrilled to find their former haunt vital again. You might catch older customers perusing the photos of yesterday’s stars in the entranceway for memories. To the rest, they’re just wallpaper.
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Michael Jordan’s Steak House
In case you’ve forgotten, in the early 1990s Michael Jordan didn’t just walk on water: He parted the water, turned it to wine, and drank it. Then he tried baseball, and from an image standpoint, it was ingenious, because failure humanized him. Jordan returned to the NBA not as a god but as a man who couldn’t hit a slider any better than the rest of us, and we rooted for him even harder. He did not disappoint. The disappointment came later, with another false retirement and a false divorce. Then the real retirement and real divorce.
What does any of this have to do with the new steak house in the InterContinental? Plenty. I no longer expect everything MJ touches to retain a spark of his magic. That’s how I can accept with a shrug that Michael Jordan’s name is now on an utterly average restaurant. An erratic place that dry-ages a gorgeous New York strip 28 days and then serves it lukewarm. Where James O’Donnell’s smart, terrific creations, like a tangy, ginger-toned Maine lobster salad, bump up against a shrimp-and-grits abomination with rubbery crustaceans and grits soupier than Carolina in July. If we’re going with 1990s Bulls metaphors, this is the Luc Longley of steak houses: endearing but inconsistent.
The restaurant looks great. Bringing the lush details from Jordan’s beef outposts in New York and Connecticut to Michigan Avenue was brilliant. The multilevel space, awash in bronze and Cognac tones, with velvet booths and a glass catwalk bridge overlooking the hotel lobby, is pure tourist bait. “You’re from Chicago?” a hostess asked my group incredulously. Believe it, sister. And I liked the crispy-soft garlic bread with Ader Käse blue cheese fondue as much as everyone else. I even fell for the bright 23-ingredient chopped salad, though I wondered if each tomato counted as one ingredient.
After that, things got a little messy. The harissa-punched lamb chops with merguez sausage were expertly seared to give diners a glorious char in every bite; a delicate pan-roasted Alaskan halibut was balanced atop an aggressively smoked pecan romesco. You may notice I’m not mentioning any steaks. I can’t identify with a steak house that proudly drowns everything in a cloying ginger-balsamic sauce. Every cut I tried—particularly the bone-in rib eye—was overwhelmed and muddled by sharp flavors. For $48, I’d like to taste my steak. Pacing problems, which made what should have been a two-hour meal last three, didn’t help. Other than a Prairie Fruits Farm goat cheesecake with spiced nut crunch, plum sorbet, and citrus caramel, desserts (by One Sixtyblue’s Hillary Blanchard-Rikower) disappointed and confounded—not sure what they’re going for with the gummy love child of Key lime and meringue. Spend your money on the bar’s honest versions of forgotten cocktails, like the Blinker, a potent mix of rye, grapefruit juice, and raspberry.
When I met Michael Jordan at Japonais in 2007, he struck me as sad, as though no new experience could come close to matching what he had accomplished and there was no point in trying. A man who still earns $60 million annually in endorsements eight years after retiring is obviously not in the restaurant game for the money. This venture is about his ego and his legacy. Frankly, it’s not good enough or bad enough to affect either.