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February 15, 2005

22 Restaurant and Bar rates three stars

I suppose few people are bold (or stupid) enough to arrange an Assyrian winged man-bull opposite a painting of a naked showgirl. Yet they are arranged just so in 22 Restaurant and Bar Moderne, a recently reworked contemporary American restaurant in River North.

The decorating faux pas is smoothed over by the comforts of a contemporary American restaurant, however. Industrial lighting, dark colors, minimalist furniture, square plates, and an LED-lit bar are all predictably deployed.

The cuisine is analogous to the décor. 22 Restaurant and Bar Moderne attempts to be exotic without truly risking experimentation. The dishes offer up familiar flavors that, while not spectacular, will not disappoint or offend.

This seems to be a sound strategy for a restaurant undergoing a makeover after an apparently unsuccessful year. Previously known as Room 22, the restaurant closed briefly in order to rename itself, rework the menu, recover from the flight of well known executive chef Patrick Robertson, and adjust to his replacement, Joseph Rossi.

22 Restaurant, with a new and improved name, offers a few eccentricities to match. The menu—divided into "raw, cured and vegetable," "warm sexy savories and salads," and "main course fish, meat, game, and forest"—is novel. The wine list is also unconventional. A "mixed bottle" option ($60) allows the diner to purchase a third of a bottle of boutique wine to match each course. The option is a bargain and a good chance to experiment. The staff is careful to accommodate the budding oenophile.

Of the "raw, cured and vegetable" selections, the tuna tartare served with beet chips was balanced and fresh. Duck confit atop pavé of celeriac and heirloom pear was the unanimous standout from the "warm sexy savories and salads." Duck, often served sweet, matched well with a dominantly orange- and slightly truffle-hinted honey. Pairing pavé of celeriac and a sauce with a taste of mushroom with the duck was a minor risk that proved quite gratifying.

Other savories and salads were not so well received. The golden beet salad was fair, and the vanilla scallop soufflé left something to be desired. The beet salad was simple and innocuous, mixed with goat cheese and dill and topped with a fruity vinaigrette. The scallop soufflé was served with chanterelles mushrooms and cauliflower, then draped with mushroom tea (mushroom stock reduced with a black tea bag). Far from sexy or savory, the scallops lost their subtlety to the overpowering vanilla.

Coconut poached veal cheek and lemon glazed sweetbread was the star entrée. The coconut flavoring of the veal was subtle, while the lemon glaze was present enough to tame the sensation of eating pancreas. The dish was very appetizing, especially placed on its bed of baby bok choy and kohlrabi.

The roast snapper with sea scallops—drizzled with a parsnip, beet, and celery white sauce—was very fine. The sauce was smooth and matched the scallops and fish well. Roast breast of duck and foie gras in a port wine reduction sauce is a good option for those looking for traditional meals.

The desserts were a mixed bag. A chocolate crème brûlée was uninspired. It was nothing more than a chocolate pudding put under flame with a mint leaf garnish. An orange-scented panna cotta was superb. It was creamy, light, and mixed with a spare amount of sugared orange zest: in short, a fabulous dessert.

I was not always perfectly sure where the menu was going. When the chips fell at the end of the night, however, it seemed that everything had turned out fine. I was left with a very fine deal, something novel and something familiar. 22 Restaurant and Bar Moderne is a good bet for moderately priced, interesting cuisine.