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October 7, 2011

Gilt-y pleasure

What’s in the name of a restaurant? Sometimes a lot more than you’d expect. When you hear a name like Gilt Bar, you might expect a certain measure of urban chic and elegance that makes you feel trendy without being too self-conscious, and you would be right to think so. Located in the looming shadow of Merchandise Mart, Gilt Bar is a surprisingly large space. There is a lounge area as you enter and a grand bar to your right, followed by a dining area filled with tables and booths, culminating in an open kitchen at the far end of the restaurant. To say it’s dark would be an understatement. Dark is Kanye’s twisted fantasy, dark is the side of the moon full of cool guitar solos, dark is Batman…. Gilt Bar is a black hole faintly illuminated by candles and those disorienting, incandescent globe lights that seem to be all the rage in gastropubs and gastrobars. Otherwise, it’s a cool space that, according to its blog (ugh), boasts “handcrafted cocktails, farm-friendly cuisine, and a value-driven wine list.”

During my evening spent dining there, I couldn’t help but feel that Gilt Bar was a huge misnomer. Sure, the bar shone in all its splendid glory, a kind of guiding beacon as you navigated your way to the bathroom, but there wasn’t much more to the place. Gilt Bar is, at its unadulterated core, a high-end diner that just happens to be extremely well-stocked with booze. Admittedly, I’m no expert on the subject, but judging by their extensive collection of scotch, whiskey, bourbon, gin, tequila, wine, and beer—not to mention after-dinner digestifs—it seemed that only an expert or a giant a-hole (probably a giant a-hole) could be disappointed by the selection.

Moving away from potables to eatables, we found a fairly “classic” selection of inoffensive dishes and ingredient combinations. First were the “toasts,” of which I sampled the sweet balsamic roasted garlic and olive oil, along with the bone marrow and onion jam varieties. Both were served with a well-charred loaf of that rustic white that lent itself perfectly to soaking up tastes because of its neutrality. The whole cloves of garlic were soft and pleasantly mushy, while the bone marrow and onion jam appealed to the sweet-toothed, fatty glutton in all of us. My group also had the prosciutto and fig salad. Served alongside the toasts, it was nice to occasionally take a light breather of arugula while my body struggled to understand at what point in the meal I had left the restaurant and begun receiving a bone marrow transplant at the hospital.

As for entrées, the pan-roasted salmon with melted tomatoes was nice and tasty in that hey-I-like-salmon-so-I-will-probably-like-this-dish-and-guess-what-I-do kind of way. The other entrée we shared were the pork meatballs, which were served in a tomato-based romesco sauce. These were actually some of the better meatballs I’ve had: light on filler, springy, and moist. Something in the meatball, maybe the crust, provided a nice crunchy texture. For all I know it could have been pebbles, but it was a pleasant surprise.

However, all that Gilt-ers is not gold. I understand that the chefs here never claimed to be innovative, but a self-proclaimed bar doesn’t have to limit itself, either. This was certainly true in the case of the side dishes we tried, the smashed red potatoes and caramelized brussels sprouts. The success of these vegetarian sides hinged on the addition of animal fat. In the case of the potatoes this was chicken jus, and unfortunately all that I tasted was classic mashed potatoes. Good? Sure. Special? No.

Even the upscale-food-on-training-wheels occasionally crashed. I speak of the truffle pasta, which was the only letdown of the night. Expecting a luxuriant shower of truffle to rain down upon my plate of pasta, I instead found melting shavings of Parmesan. The taste of the truffle and its appearance were practically microscopic, and all I got was the sensation of Paula Deen perched atop my shoulder, gently whispering, “Butter, y’all” in my ear.

Service was, all in all, pleasant, but the meal did feel a little rushed. If my party had not so ravenously torn into the dishes, I could have easily imagined them piling up on the table like some death-row foodie’s last meal. Quick turnover seems to be on the restaurant’s agenda, and the fact that we weren’t ordering any drinks—which we were casually reminded to do so on three separate occasions—may have conflicted with their profit margins. So when it finally came time for desserts, and we found ourselves split over the issue, the waiter decided to break the tie by delivering the check instead of the menu. Thanks ... I think?

The dessert menu was not very interesting. Brownies, carrot cake, banana split, berry trifle and—wait, it can’t be—diner-style pies. I knew it. There was no hiding the truth. Gilt Bar’s veneer of glamor and glitz was cracking, giving way to the simple diner that longed to see the light of day.

The check, on the other hand, was a sight to behold. We had feasted like kings on what had become the New American culinary repertoire, all for around $25 per person. I did a double take and a double check. Nope, everything was in order.

It’s a useful name, lending some restaurant street cred in a city where Paul Kahan is the name that rolls off everyone’s tongue (Publican, avec, Blackbird, Big Star), and it’s a nice place  when you need somewhere to go on a Saturday night that doesn’t involve molecular gastronomy. That’s not to say that Gilt Bar is off the beaten path; reservations are relatively hard to come by. But you can safely recommend it to anyone looking for a bite downtown that isn’t Chipotle or a 7–11; rest assured that they will enjoy the food and drinks, and that you will come across as a sophisticated urbanite with an insider’s knowledge of the Chicago food scene. Bargain prices, neo-“classic” dishes, and a rare quality that makes you want to be a regular—now that’s a blue-plate special worthy of any diner.

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