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Feature Fri Mar 14 2008
When Chicago Restaurant Week was announced earlier this year, I was ecstatic. A long list of local restaurants offered prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus at (comparatively) nominal prices, a move intended to attract some new diners into these places to see how the other half lives. The half that doesn’t bat an eyelash in the presence of upscale flower centerpieces and sommeliers. Several Drive-Thru staffers took advantage of the week’s festivities, and took a moment to write about their experiences.
David Burke’s Primehouse
616 N. Rush
My girlfriends and I settled in to a cozy and dimly lit booth to indulge in Primehouse’s special restaurant week menu. Several participating restaurants have offered only the cheapest or most mundane offerings from their regular selections, but Primehouse’s choices for the week were exciting and definitely in the spirit of Restaurant Week. For my first course, I pounced on the shellfish appetizer which featured two very large chilled shrimp and two tasty raw oysters with a variety of sauces. My pals tried the rich lobster bisque and a fun arugula salad with truffle-smoked tomatoes. While there was a shrimp entrée offered, why would anyone even consider chowing on anything but steak at this beef emporium? On our server’s suggestion, we all settled on the petite bone in filet with tempura green beans and basil whipped potatoes. The steaks were not the ginormous slabs of cow that Chicago is known for, but actually the perfect portion size for my friends and certainly worth the price. Mine was quite tender and more flavorful than I expected – probably from the marbling surrounding the bone.
Diners were not offered a choice of desserts, but the festive trio of cheesecake lollipop, mini milkshake, and dark chocolate cake did not disappoint. However, two of my buddies thought their cake was a touch on the dry side.
I have eaten at Primehouse before and I was quite familiar with the wine list before we arrived. As Restaurant Week is supposed to inspire folks to try nicer spots in the city for a reduced price, I warned my fellow diners that our booze bill could easily be the undoing of a “value” meal. As the resident wine diva, I selected one of the most inexpensive whites on the list to start – an Italian Tocai Friuliano for $36. Since there were four of us, a second bottle was certainly in order so I chose, again, one of the least expensive Cabernet Sauvignons- Laurel Glen Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 at $70. Now the Laurel Glen is a personal favorite and well worth $70, but had there been more interesting options at $45- $55, I probably would have chosen something cheaper. So, add a wine bill of over $100 to our tab, along with tax and a generous, well-deserved gratuity; each of us ponied up about $80. Not exactly a bargain night out for a Monday, but then again, gals in my posse aren’t cheap dates. Overall, the food was terrific and the service spectacular while we laughed and toasted our inability to take proper advantage of a great deal.
720 N. State
For an evening out with some long-lost girlfriends, we settled on dinner at Roy’s, the Polynesian beacon of purple light and Hawaiian cuisine at the corner of Dearborn and Erie. I’m normally suspicious of restaurants specializing in seafood in Chicago (we may be on a lake, but have you seem some of the stuff that washes up at the beach?), and doubly so of Polynesian-themed spots. Maybe it’s the ultimately unfortunate legacy of Tiki Time and its ilk that what seemed fun and exotic in the 1950s is now just a reminder of the unexpansive mindset of the American restaurateur and the casual prejudice of the American (usually tourist) diner. And it usually just feels tacky. ANYWAY, during our Restaurant Week excursion to Roy’s, my ambivalent expectations were both limply met and strongly confounded – a paradox I’m still not quite sure what to do with. From the self-indulgent menu to our robotic-professional waiter, I was ready to just dive straight into a Mai Tai and call it a night by the time we were finally seated. After a weirdly long wait to order, a long explanation of the parts of the menu we didn’t care about (prix-fixe! Bring it!), we finally got down to the business of eating. And not a moment too soon, as the Wallflowers came whispering over the sound system.
Here’s the thing. At the end of the day, Roy’s may just be another tiki knock-off dressed up in the trappings of the modern era. But the food is good. Real good. And more importantly, interestingly good. The appetizer sampler didn’t set the bar particularly high, with its surf and turf, deep fried shrimp, beef short ribs, and chicken and glass noodle egg rolls; but the egg rolls and their mustardy sweet sauce upped the ante a bit, and the meat on the short ribs were just perfectly crisp at the edges and chewy, deeply flavored with their Mongolian-style dry rub. Swordfish replaced skate wing for one of the most tender and flavorful presentations of that particular fish I’ve ever encountered, again cooked perfectly to fall into solid flakes, and again with those dreamily crisp edges (how do they do that?). The crab “dynamite” sauce added an extra richness and soaked in nicely to the pineapple and tomato studded fried rice. All three of us ordered the molten chocolate cake for dessert, that perennial prom queen of American desserts, and it of course did not disappoint, as one of my tablemates will attest.
So while I’m not exactly rushing out to don a Hawaiian shirt and hit up Roy’s for a chance to strum a ukulele at the bar on Saturday nights, I certainly wouldn’t mind going back. And I certainly will go back a little less judgy, and with more dough to give them in loving return for what I’m sure will be a great meal.
- Andie Thomalla
500 N. Clark
After a scheduling mixup that shattered my plans of having dinner at Aigre Doux with a friend, I opted for a last-minute solo lunch reservation at Naha, figuring that a table for one could be fun and also give me the opportunity to read a book in a sleek, classy atmosphere while I ate upscale eats. The interior is beautiful and the service unfailingly polite; even though it was obvious that I was a working stiff who was probably better dressed for eating a #2 Value Meal at McDonald’s, I was treated very well during my meal. The first thing I noticed was the bread basket, which contained a trio of lovely, inventive flavors: a sweet bread made of , apricot and raisin, a straightforward sourdough, and a brown-colored bread that I mistakenly thought was a boring wheat and instead was flavored with a curry/turmeric vibe.
Andie Thomalla also attended Naha for a meal during Restaurant Week, and we both agreed that the first diorama of spaghetti squash and other delights. The waiter then took a separate pitcher and poured the actual soup over the little mound of flavor, the soup being so yellow it reminded me of the tempura paint of my childhood school art projects. The beautiful color matched the flavor. I was very satisfied.
The entrée, however, was a disappointment. Andie raved over the Southern Fried Chicken Salad. I made the same error I have made before when eating at nice restaurants: I order something I’m not familiar with in an attempt to be exotic and instead stop at 7-11 on the way home, starving, for an angry Twinkies and hot dog binge. I ordered the confit duck leg, and while the port reduction and frisee were nice, they seemed to be a separate, distinctive little meal from the dry, tough duck meat. Dessert was a pineapple tart served with almond ice cream. Pretty good, but not enough to compensate for the entrée.
Some staffers have speculated that Restaurant Week was a good opportunity to trot out lesser ingredients to make up for the significantly cheaper price of the meal; while I think my meal at Naha was made with their best materials, I wasn’t convinced that my entree was given as much attention as the dishes being placed on the other tables.