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February 18, 2016

Alex's Food Journal: The Promontory, Hyde Park’s Only Serious Dining Experience

The long bridge between no-frills grub and uppity fine dining is a loosely defined culmination of values that reconcile the two pillars of food: sustenance and artistry. To some, this may bring to mind the popular farm-to-table movements, modernized cultural fusion cuisines, or even the hip revival of barbecue culture. Our waitress at the Promontory generously coined this term “serious dining,” emphasizing the rigor that validates food culture and culinary arts.

This intimately lit space, subtly tucked away from Harper Court, emanates hospitality and warmth, emphasizing food and company. The fully seated bar at the front of the house—humbly stashed with top-shelf whiskeys—and the open hearth kitchen remind you that the crew at the Promontory lives to interact with their diners. Dress like it’s date-night and you’ll surely be met with an engaged waiting staff and an able sommelier that approach you as peers, expressing a genuine interest in making your night as enjoyable as possible.

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Parsnip Soup with Huckleberry Gastrique (Complimentary): The first impression of this palate starter almost resembled clam chowder. The savory tone of roasted onions was followed by the creeping flavor of starchy, earthy parsnips. The tartness and sweetness of the gastrique cut right through the creamy emulsion. A thoughtful, balanced starter.

Clam Fritters ($11): Dry, bland, deep-fried balls of raw flour and cornmeal with a taste of the sea you have to close your eyes to believe. The glorified tartar sauce—called gribiche—and pickled vegetables were perfect complements for a sizzling, fatty fish filet with crackling skin. An underwhelming appetizer.

P.E.I. Mussels ($15): The broth was the star of the dish. The meatiness of the lamb sausage met with the smokiness of the black garlic oil and sweetness of the wine. This blend hit the palate in waves to leave a warm, comfortable spiciness of the pimento as a thin layer of smoky, savory oil coated the mouth. The only problem? The broth-soaked bread stole the show from the mussels.

Kentucky Burgoo ($26): For a dish that the Promontory has kept on their menu for longer than a year, this one didn’t hit the right spots like the first time. Fibrous, thinly-sliced, almost unrecognizable turkey roulade, grainy butter beans, and gritty cornbread nearly ruined this dish. Not a good evening for corn at the Promontory. Fortunately, the succulent pork belly was fork tender and the plump venison sausage was snappable, working in tandem with the smoky, tart tomato broth and pickled okra to induce that fundamental balance of intoxicating smoke, fatty meat, and biting acidity.

Squash Risotto ($16): Spiced pecan? Apple? Egg? Mushrooms? Fermented Cabbage? A few moments with a spoonful of every component in the mouth left me lost, the crunchy pecan and tender, sweet apples interjecting the umami of the mushrooms and the funk of the cabbage. All while the fudgy egg yolk and creamy risotto gradually subdue the whole fiasco. I rationalized with all my might that the combination was ingenious, but in retrospect realize that it may have been just the confused mess it looked like on the menu. This dish was spread too thin in pursuit of multi-dimensional flavors and textures. Perhaps it’s worth a second try.

Chocolate Hazelnut Pave ($9): Skip the apple fritters: this pave, a flourless, dense, neatly cut cake and all of its surrounding components demonstrated a caliber of craft that caught me off guard. This dish took the award-winning combination of rich dark chocolate and refreshing orange that straddled the fence of over-ambition in its elaboration, but ultimately delivered. The espresso custard accented the fragrant bitterness of the otherwise sinfully dense chocolate, both melting in the mouth to coat the crunchy hazelnut crumble. This flavor profile was the elevated version of a bite of Ferrero-Rocher and a sip of iced coffee au lait. The warm, subdued sweetness of the moist citrus genoise added all the flavor of orange without the acidity, meeting the viscous, yet cutting bitterness of the grapefruit curd. The dream bite of all this dish’s components, with the Meyer lemon powder dancing on the tongue, may seem contrived, but is ultimately focused on the effects of a single flavor combination. Coherence and complexity beautifully married.

The Promontory serves a thought-provoking menu that finally attracts UChicago students with money to burn and curious Chicago diners who previously avoided Hyde Park’s desolate bubble of a food scene. The established, know-it-all critics may chain the Promontory to the traditions they think the restaurant should uphold and completely miss the idea that the chef-owners, Bruce Finkelman and Jared Wentworth, aim to create an experience with creative, playful interpretations on classic dishes. And while their menu may have its inconsistencies and flaws, the experience is markedly more interesting than the snuffy, modernized Italian cuisine at A10.

Open 11 a.m.–11 p.m. Monday–Thursday, 11 a.m.–1 a.m. Friday, 9 a.m.–1 a.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Sunday. $$$.

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