Believe the Hype

Michael Nagrant / 04.12.11

Public Enemy was right: Don’t believe the hype. I don’t usually take my cues from a dude who spent nine weeks in Rikers Island for unpaid parking tickets, but when it comes to restaurant PR, Flavor Flav is on to something.

I usually stay away from the coddling beast, the well of untruthful paid advertising, but a few Friday nights ago I fell hard. I’d eaten this chef’s food twice already and it was really inconsistent, and every time his PR people insisted my experience was a blip. And indeed, the guy had everyone on Check Please! bowing at his toque. Most reviewers in town, including the Yoda-like sages at the big dailies were declaring him a Jedi Master with their three stars.

And so I went back again to Dagobah to see if this dude really could lift X-Wing Fighters with his mind, or at least put out some well-balanced seasoned food. He couldn’t even lift the salt shaker with his hands. Every dish was underseasoned, and then he stuck a lightsaber in our backs and served us bad oysters. Our drinks were watery and overpriced, and our server, well, she might as well have been chained to Jabba the Hutt while wearing a metal bikini as much as we saw her.

Normally I don’t pull my punches and I’d tell you who the chef is, but from what I’ve seen of him managing his kitchen and from talking to him, I believe he’s one of the hardest-working men in chow business. He’s trying to honor his diners, but just hasn’t found his way yet.

The other reason I’m staying quiet is that I had a great meal the other night at Sable Kitchen and Bar at the Palomar Hotel downtown. It made me think about how I’d wasted my Friday night on the hype, when what I should have been doing is celebrating Sable chef Heather Terhune.

Terhune is the antithesis of the PR driven chef, a low-key player who helmed the kitchen for the last decade at the Atwood Café in the Hotel Burnham, one of the Loop’s best spots to grab a bite after a little Christmas shopping at Macy’s.

In ten years, Charlie Trotter became regarded as one of the best chefs in America and Shawn McClain got a restaurant in Vegas. In five years, Grant Achatz was lauded as one of the best chefs in the world. Terhune has a scant few mentions on Google. If I were a private investigator paid to gather a dossier on her, I might have to return the bounty.

But at least, and thankfully, she finally got a new kitchen and an incredible team of bartenders including old Violet Hour hand, Mike Ryan. Though Sable is decked out with black lacquer and more giraffe-necked leggy hotties than a Billy Dec spot, Sable is still the antithesis to all the booty-shakin’ boutique bars and Viagra Triangle lounges within five miles.

Vaunted nearby hotels struggle to make classic cocktails, except middling martinis for $12. At that price Ryan stirs up Green Chartreuse, Wild Turkey rye and Angostura Bitters to create a woodsy herby elixir that feels like a liquid interpretation of driving through a Redwood forest. Or, at least it’s so restorative and masculine, it might be what you drink after lumberjacking a clearing of them.

For a few bucks more, he spikes homemade bacon bitters, lemon and bacon-brown sugar syrup with a peaty 12-year-old Yamazaki scotch. The piggy stays in the back and it drinks like the hope of a grassy lemon perfumed spring mixed with the satisfaction of smoky burning leaves in Fall. (Full disclosure: Ryan and I had met a weeks before and he knew I was there halfway through the night. However, I’ve been a big fan of his since Violet Hour when I was anonymous. This guy can mix with the best of them.)

You get even more value with the food. I thought I was over “sliders,” but Terhune’s Flinstonian slabs of short rib glazed with root beer ($6 for three) on tiny rolls would shut down a White Castle if Sable was next door. The deconstructed buffalo wing is more cliché than being first in line for an Apple product launch, and yet my friends sucked down the delicate buttermilk-tanged spicy quail nuggets served with blue cheese slaw faster than a group of drunken frat boys at Hooters. ($10 for a pile.) Pork Belly BLT’s ($5 for three) featuring crispy panes of crackling skin and silky hunks of fat and flesh kick the ass of the dainty tea snack classic we’ve been eating for years.

The house-baked soft pretzels were a tad dry but my companion, so smitten with the cheddar cheese dip, just turned her index finger into a fondue fork and lapped the remainder up. I applaud the creativity, but crispy grilled rye bread is still more satisfying than the caraway-studded phyllo wrappers on the corned beef reuben rolls here.

No matter, for silky butterscotch pot de crème tempered by tangy kumquats and buttery pecan shortbread is one of the better desserts I’ve had all year. Terhune’s time is now. Believe the hype. Yeah boy.

Sable Kitchen and Bar, 505 N. State, (312)755-9704