By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris . Restaurant Critic
It's probably not politically correct to poke fun at those with multiple personality disorders. It seems to be a particularly prevalent yet undiagnosed malady among the judiciary and, some associates would say, senior partners, many of whom play good cop/bad cop all by themselves — moving from lamb to lion with blurring speed. But this is less intriguing when it applies to restaurants.
Scott Walton, the culinary pride of Olympia Fields Country Club, brings us Markethouse, another in the growing field of farm-to-market, simple-is-better, fresh-is-best restaurants. Billed as a heartland-inspired, farmer-friendly gem, whoever writes its ad copy is doing a great job. Too bad the writer apparently hasn't talked much to the chef. Sitting in busy Streeterville on Fairbanks Court, Markethouse is connected to the Doubletree Hotel Chicago Magnificent Mile — and at least one of its personalities (sadly, the dominant one) screams, "I am a B-level hotel restaurant — not a bad one, but a hotel restaurant to be sure!"
The creative personality, the one we were rooting for, is the one who put the place together. It opens into a large round room, painted in rich, warm, burnt sienna and earth tones with a low slung and chic granite bar to the right, serving until late with Wednesdays being billed as half-price martini days. (Do half-price martinis on Wednesday ever seem like a good idea on Thursday morning?) To the left is a huge room, ringed with booths in homage to the Greek diner personality.
The hodgepodge continues with the menu, which is all over the board. Since apparently the writer and chef personalities don't talk with each other, what you order may not exactly be what you get. A big part of the lunch menu is devoted to the "30 Minute Executive Lunch" (which I think support staff can order too). It is your basic soup, salad and/or sandwich mix, but all the sandwiches are some variation of a grilled cheese. Ours was the waiter-recommended Guinness Cheddar, which came a little thin on the cheddar, but thick on the pan-toasted country white bread. The surprise was the braised short rib laced through the cheddar.
We tried the Wild Mushroom Truffle, which was served thick and hot and was a perfectly good mushroom soup. Not much in the truffle department though. Hummus came as an appetizer with savory looking, (but not tasty) triangles — perfect for a bland diet. The surprise ingredient of pine nuts, however, is never going to provide the missing zip. The return of house-made pate is usually my favorite intended consequence of the farm-to-table movement. Usually. Here it was flat and tasteless, served with something that was not coarse mustard plus translucent pickled onions that could not seriously be for eating. The grilled shrimp on a bed of Napa cabbage, romaine lettuce, blackened pineapple, shiitake mushrooms, red pepper, cucumber and a ginger sesame vinaigrette was fine if you didn't really want the pineapple blackened — or the mushrooms, cucumber or ginger sesame at all. At least one of the personalities is a trickster.
The entrée selections were consistently inconsistent. We passed on the baby back ribs with "grilled Illinois corn" because I have lived in Illinois for a long time and I am pretty sure that there is no farm in the state that is bringing its fresh corn to any table in April. The Heirloom Squash Risotto came out kelly green, probably due to an overage of "wild rocket" — a green leaf sort of like arugula without the bite — and not enough of the promised chanterelle mushrooms or sheep Parmesan. The meat loaf was very tasty comfort food — a big ball of mixed beef, pork, veal and just enough calf liver to taste, served in nice, brown gravy with diced veggies. This dish seemed like a farm staple. Perhaps most interesting in show goes to the Bell's Ale Battered Fish and Chips — served in a massive Le Creuset terrine, which might be better used for a family serving of scalloped potatoes. The whitefish had way too much batter and quickly became mushy. Although the Bell's Ale flavor was great, I couldn't help thinking it might have been better in a frosted pint glass.
The dessert personalities were out in force too. The Molten Chocolate Cake was dark, bitter and broody. Sort of like my motion call judge that morning. The Ricotta and Meyer Lemon Beignet was unexpectedly smoky, which was good, but completely lacked the promised sour apple or butterscotch. The Strawberry and Rhubarb Brown Butter Tart was a soupy, mushy blow to a young man's dreams of crisp sugar crust around the bitter/sweet bite of strawberry rhubarb.
Nearly redeeming, though, was the butterscotch bread pudding. Served in the Le Creuset dishes that the owners must have gotten a deal on, this proved rich, sweet and had a perfect bread pudding consistency. Hopefully, Markethouse will benefit from more therapy to still its wandering focus. Or better yet, someone who knows farm-to-market will take this space over and synchronize it.
611 N. Fairbanks Court
Appetizers: $6 - $10
Entrees: $9 - $35