By Michael Philippi
Ungaretti & Harris • Restaurant Critic
On Oct. 1, 1938 — about 70 years ago — the Pump Room opened. In October of this year, it opened again. Over the years it became easily the most famous joint in a city full of them — earning lines in Sinatra songs and serving decadent food to decadent people. You have to like a place with a wall of priceless pictures that includes Tony Randall and Alice Cooper side by side — not to mention a thousand others.
Named for an 18th century public bath in England at which commoners, like us, could mingle with royalty, like them, it became the ultimate see-and-be-seen venue. With the new Pump Room at Public Chicago hotel and the vision of rock star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten they have, as they say, done it again, making over this grand dame so she looks and feels young again without selling out the iconic charm that made her the Rat Pack's best gal in the first place. Think Sophia Loren in "Grumpier Old Men," but with Scarlett Johansson as her granddaughter. Have a couple signature cocktails and you will quickly understand what Frank meant when he sang about our "toddlin' town."
But to be clear, this isn't your grandfather's Pump Room. While it is just great that Booth No. 1 is still up and ready, complete with nearby phone, the decor is modern, warm and earthy. Like a Jerry Garcia extended jam, there isn't a sharp edge in the place — it is a buttery smooth hideaway destined to reclaim its rightful place at the "top of the heap." The open dining room is lit with orbs that add even more warmth and depth to an already welcoming space. The attentive, black-clad wait staff wear Chuck Taylor All Stars. A long, beautiful bar stands in front of a concave grotto. Late suppers — until 1 a.m. — era appropriate music, tapas-like plates and a great diverse crowd are going to be a big hit for a long time and no doubt will draw a new generation of royalty to be seen and their fans to see them.
Crème fraîche cheesecake, roasted figs, concord grape sorbet
The real stars are on the menu though, not in the corner booth. A farm-to-table theme — recognizable fresh ingredients, but maybe not in the combinations that you expect. The crab toast with lemon aioli comes as crusty, hearty slices of ciabatta bread topped with plenty of sweet, fresh crabmeat. Even more interesting was the salt and pepper shrimp, simply flavored with lemon and basil, our waiter urged us to eat the shell and all. With a soft-shell crab crunch, it melted into meaty, moist shrimp happily unimpaired by over-spicing.
They must have some seriously hot oil in this place, as pretzel-dusted calamari was light and perfectly cooked, served with two dipping sauces — a spicy marinara and a delicate, mustard aioli. Roasted beets came with candied hazelnuts that combined very nicely with the earthy beets. Pear and apple salad was a great presentation with sweet, julienned bits of each along with pungent blue cheese vinaigrette sitting in little endive boats — a very impressive combination of tastes and textures.
October is Brussels sprout season — a most underrated and misunderstood fall vegetable. They offered caramelized with fresh tricolored tagliatelle and a pistachio pesto that rang the bell with its crunch and flavor. Pretty much every restaurant in town does a grilled chicken chopped salad. No one does it like this — a bounty of chopped apple, greens, avocado, blue cheese and candied pecans atop a grilled chicken breast pounded flat. Even the Lake Superior whitefish — with a capacity to be boring and (alternatively) dry or mushy was perfectly prepared and presented with flavorful chilies, herbs and brushed on lime.
Best in show, maybe best in town, goes to the fried, organic chicken. I don't really get or care about the organic thing. Plus, as any honest person who enjoys foie gras must acknowledge, I don't care near as much about whether the food self-actualized during its life as I care about how it is prepared après la mort. Remember the hot oil? This deboned, half chicken is breaded fully and had to have been thrust into a cauldron of boiling oil about the temperature of the sun's surface. Somehow it comes out light and seriously crunchy. I need to go back lots of times and try the stuff I missed, but if you only go once, skip the dessert, but don't miss the chicken.
Lagniappe: In its glory years, Arturo Petterino was the Pump Room's maître d'. He died at the great age of 89 last year. One of my partners used to be a bellman at the Ambassador East Hotel in the late '70s. He has great Pump Room stories. I bet Mr. Petterino had better ones. The one that pops up on Google is where Frank Sinatra threw his plate of spaghetti and meatballs at him because it wasn't up to his standards. Mr. Petterino, wiping gravy from his tux, politely explained that the Pump Room was French/American, not Italian. Apparently the explanation worked because Sinatra came back. Once in a while I go to Petterino's. It's really a great place for a drink or dinner before a show. I wonder if Lettuce Entertain You named it in homage to Arturo. If anybody knows, e-mail me.
1301 N. State Parkway, Chicago