August 12, 2014

Hearth-to-Hyde Park

Tucked into an old Borders bookstore behind Akira in a squat, blue building sits the newest addition to the East 53rd Street restaurant scene and the Harper Court development. The brainchild of duo Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden (the tastemakers behind Longman & Eagle in Logan Square and Thalia Hall in Pilsen), Promontory serves up American fare from its wood-burning “hearth”—inspired by the pits at the park from which the joint takes its name—along with live music on the building’s second story.

Bruce Finkelman, who got his start on the Chicago music scene when he opened the music club and bar The Empty Bottle in 1992, said in an interview that although he and Golden “were brought on board by the University…the idea of doing something in Hyde Park was really appealing.” The real question, however, is how appealing the Promontory is to Chicagoans with an appetite and a mid-sized—but by no means meager—budget.

Inside the restaurant, a sort of modern lodge aesthetic (complete with wood stacks and piles of wine bottles) mixes with a soundtrack of old jazz, blues, and funk classics. “Duke of Earl” and “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” fade into Billie Holiday and Muddy Waters. Near the front of the restaurant is an expansive bar, stacked high with various bottles and replete with hanging artisan light bulbs. At least two dozen stools are spread out around the counter, which echoes the open kitchen and “hearth” where you can watch chefs prepare dishes ranging from the Hearth Roasted Feta to the Navarin of Lamb. The tables and chairs are simple, minimalist wood affairs, and the floor is concrete. In the back corner is a waiter’s station that looks like it could be its own coffee shop; an espresso machine, bean grinder, cups, and delicate glass instruments are all Instagram-ready.

I started with the Kalbi Short Rib with blistered shishito peppers and the Escabeche of White Anchovy with pickled vegetables and house-made tartine. The short rib ($10), a fairly small dish under the menu’s “snack” category, had a nice smoky flavor, but was overpowered by the shishito peppers. The peppers had a wonderful juiciness and spice, without being stringy or mushy. The escabeche was the best dish brought to the table all night. Though giving off a strong briny, vinegary smell, the tartine and hen’s egg balanced out the dish’s acidity, taming the intensity of the pickled vegetables and the white anchovies. The result was a well balanced and surprisingly filling plate for $12.

The Quail on a String ($17), one of the larger items off of the “Embers” section of the menu, was less satisfactory. Perhaps due to soft-opening kinks, the quail took 45 minutes to arrive at the table, and I was disappointed to find that one of the small quail breasts was totally dry, like a bad Thanksgiving turkey. The other two on the plate, thankfully, were more forgiving. The asparagus, pickled oyster mushrooms, pâté, and orange gastrique that decorated the plate outshone the quail, but failed to come together to create a cohesive flavor. Each element was interesting on its own, but couldn’t quite work together as well as one would like. The orange was a bit too sweet—perhaps lemon would’ve been a better companion to the vinegar-heavy pickled mushrooms and the rich pâté.

From there, our extremely friendly waitress (she had dubbed herself “captain on our food journey” and insisted on learning the name of everyone in my party) recommended we order the S’more Soufflé, along with their version of the Baked Alaska (both $9). The Baked Alaska featured a “flamed bourbon jelly”—traditionally the dish is flamed tableside a la Christmas pudding—which reminded me of a similar Miller High Life gel used in a dish at the Promontory’s older, hipper sibling, Longman & Eagle. Both the bourbon jelly and the High Life gel unfortunately fail to bring much to their respective dishes besides whimsical intrigue. At the end of the day, the latter is still Miller High Life, and the former misses the point of any flamed dish, which is to flame the dish itself, a process that in addition to spectacle adds a boozy flavor and raises the temperature a good notch. Though, perhaps rightly, the Promontory felt flaming desserts were a bit too Dickensian, and the lack of flame, besides leaving this reviewer a bit crestfallen, didn’t keep the Baked Alaska from fulfilling just about anything you would want in a dessert involving ice cream, merengue, espresso, hazelnuts, and pound cake; that is to say, it filled up every little crevice you had left in your stomach after a lean meal of un-American (aka normal) sized portions. The S’more Soufflé performed equally well, though for $9, I’ll probably head to Kilwin’s for my next chocolate fix.

The Promontory seems to be struggling to find a unique voice both in the Finkelman-Golden empire and in the often soulless Harper Court. At the moment, it feels like a great neighborhood bar and music venue trying to be an upscale dining establishment. Perhaps as it ages it will start to accept more of the bad boy side of its persona, but this would probably mean compromising part of its status as a destination for people coming from all over the city. Currently the Promontory, unlike Longman & Eagle, takes reservations (and they’re filling up fast), and you can also buy tickets for their various concerts online. These two factors make the joint less of a stop on your way home from work and more of a night out in itself, a rarity in the Hyde Park area.

There were, admittedly, a few glitches in the evening I spent there—for instance, with each course the service staff brought new napkins and silverware without taking away some of the old, meaning that by the end of the meal we each had three napkins and a few odd pieces of cutlery. However, the escabeche itself was enough to keep me interested, and the strong musical line-up over the next few weeks, including saxophonist Maceo Parker and Chicago soul singer Otis Clay, will likely keep a steady stream of patrons coming to the Promontory. For right now, though, the draw may mainly be the names Finkelman and Golden, and hope for what this restaurant could mature into is what will keep people coming back.