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Restaurant Tue Jan 13 2009

It's Tiki-Time!

If there's a time and place for a tropical drink big enough for four, served in a pearlescent porcelain conch shell with giant straws, January in Chicago is it.

The aptly named Rum Giggle arrived at our table near the end of the recent media dinner for Chicago's newly-opened Trader Vic's, 1030 N. State St. Three years ago, the city's previous incarnation of the famous tiki bar and restaurant, then-located at the Palmer House Hilton, closed its doors. For those who never made it there, the Rum Giggle sums up the Trader Vic's experience: festive and sophisticated, but with just the right touch of camp.

Read about Trader Vic's behemoth cocktail menu after the jump.

Indeed, Chicago is one of 28 Trader Vic's locations, and it's clear they've got "tropical" down to a science. The dining room and lounge call to mind an island getaway without resorting to fake fishing nets; instead, bamboo, foliage and lighting create an urban oasis. The massive cocktail menu features 82 drinks to evoke that "sand-between-your-toes" (and, perhaps later, that "sex-on-the-beach") feeling. Favorites like the Mai Tai - invented by none other than Vic himself - compete with more exotic options like the Honi Honi and Doctor Funk of Tahiti.

Trader Vic's separate lounge and dining room mean you can drop in just for drinks - but the food is actually quite good. After a humdrum amuse bouche - a disc of avocado topped with chopped shrimp, bits of tail and all - my dining companions and I were very pleasantly surprised by how well we enjoyed our entrees. The seafood and steak were expertly prepared by Executive Chef Isaac Holzwarth and his staff; the wasabi-spiked steak was a standout. The Trader Vic's salad was the best of the starters, with fresh hearts of palm, endive and a light vinaigrette. Desserts - such as kumquat and chocolate spring rolls with crème anglaise -- were decadent, though a bit too sweet for me when paired with the likes of the Rum Giggle.

Food and drink may be a matter of taste, but certain standards of good service prevail, including attitude and timing. The pace of the meal was off, with a big gap between our salads and entrees. Our server was obviously aware of the glitch and promptly sent over the manager to ply us with more drinks (never a wrong move in a crowd of writers.) From the server and manager, to the woman who checked our coats, everyone was friendly and accommodating.

I'd recommend Trader Vic's after a long day of shopping and strolling in the Gold Coast, for Girls Night -- or to chase away those Chicago winter blues.


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