Gilt-y as Charged

Michael Nagrant / 07.28.09

A woman in a white, strapless party dress paces between the burnished leather banquettes and rustic wooden tables at Gilt Bar. She bites her bottom lip, tugging at the hem of her dress and fingering the black trim up top as she walks. Whatever she’s looking for, she hasn’t found it. Finally, she pauses in the center of the room, resolute, beneath the tendrils of a silver chandelier that looks like a jellyfish poised to snare its prey. And then she’s gone.

I can’t help but notice her. For Gilt Bar, located in the looming art deco shadow of the Merchandise Mart, is the current ground zero for hip designerati—vintage T-shirt and jeans central. Tis is the kind of place that makes you think that dressing up for dinner is for moms and starch-shirted bankers.

Twenty feet away, through the wide-screen picture window into Gilt’s kitchen, is chef/owner Brendan Sodikoff, working the pass in a baby blue bandanna. And like the woman in white, he doesn’t seem to belong. He is an acolyte of culinary demigods Alain Ducasse and Tomas Keller, a five-star cook who’s decided to chuck the dining temple ideal in favor of opening up a casual American joint, where almost every dish costs less than $20. But Gilt Bar is his joint. It’s the way he wants to operate: fine food without the fuss.

Te guy sometimes comes off as cocky (ask him who designed Gilt’s new, drinks-only basement lounge and he’ll have no problem crediting himself before the architects), but his food backs him up. If Sodikoff wants to serve frites, like every other gastropub in the Chicago universe, he can. Tis is because he has kicked the common Idaho russet starch bomb to the curb. Instead, I receive a glistening cocktail shaker filled with a paper cone of smooth-skinned, crispy, but curiously light Kennebec potato fries.

If Sodikoff wants to, he can spin Te Smiths and Lou Reed to compete with the roar of the liquor-fueled, late-20s crowd. And he does. I’m dining with a paper exec (cue the Michael Scott jokes) and a radio producer, but I can’t hear much of what they’re saying.

That’s okay, since I can’t really talk anyway. I’m sucking down a refreshing Queen’s Park Swizzle— ginger-perked, five-year-old rum accented by ruddy, anise-flavored Peychaud’s bitters and bright mint leaves muddled with lime and simple syrup. The drink, with its different colored liquors layered over crushed ice, mimics the Italian flag. Paul McGee, of hipster cocktail mecca Te Whistler, consulted on Gilt’s drink menu, and his expertise is working out. Tis is the best cocktail I’ve had at a restaurant (read: not a mixology geek temple) in a while.

I’m as captivated by the décor—dim candles, spare Edison bulb light fixtures that glow like fireflies, gilded, arched mirrors over a marble bartop—as I am by the drinks. But when the waiter comes with our next dish, I’m reminded that this is Sodikoff’s show. Charcoal- grilled bread is dappled in olive oil and topped with a dollop of verdant sweet pea purée and a softball-sized hunk of burrata. Te burrata is so juicy that breaching it is like taking a bite out of a water balloon. The creamy richness teems in my mouth.

The menu, which lacks traditional divisions of appetizers and entrées, is ordered instead by food type (salads, vegetables, pasta, meat and seafood, and “on toast”) and is structured for sharing. Tough we order everything at once, the delivery of plates is casual, with veggies arriving after meat plates and bowls of pasta before salads.

Te only problem with doing things casually, as Sodikoff is, is that people who work for you might mistake the relaxed vibe as permission to underperform. Our waitress fails to change our dirty plates and silverware out after a few rounds of courses, something one of her fellow servers does for us much later in our meal. When we take a break from the frites to eat the burrata, our server, hoping to entice us to eat more fries, rips the paper cone from the shaker. I can only imagine that she’d hoped to mimic a magician, removing the tablecloth from a fully set table without disturbing a glass. But it’s a sloppy move and she spills a good portion of our fries.

It’s hard to complain, though, when I’m sated by juicy hand-cut pork meatballs with butter-soaked white grits.

As dinner continues, the kitchen’s mistakes are few and forgivable. Seared orange nairagi (a light tuna-like fish) perched on a nest of shaved vegetables is well-cooked, but the carrots and cabbage underneath are heavy with vinegar. Te sweet acid of the accompanying grapefruit should cut through, but it’s overwhelmed by the other flavors, and the mint listed on the menu is MIA.

We almost miss out on our next course, as a waifish waitress (not our original), clad in a Lennon/Ono Wedding Album T-shirt, sweeps our table clean of silverware and plates but neglects to bring new ones. Our food runner corrects the miscue after dropping off sweet balsamic fig-glazed escarole with dehydrated wheat berries that have the same crunch as Corn Nuts. Te satisfying crack paired with the sweet glaze might convince me to look into that whole vegetarianism thing.

Or not. A Texas ribeye-sized hunk of grilled swordfish, rare and light and accompanied by a yin yang of sweet currants and sour kumquats, is a pretty good argument for a carnivorous diet. Teamed with peppery arugula and buttery pine nuts, each flavor pops off at its own time and in concert with the others, building like a fireworks grand finale.

By the time we get to our real finale, the waitress is pimping the house-made caramel corn and warm brownie sundae. (Te dessert menu has no prices. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they’re free. Prices have been added since my visit, the restaurant says.) Te caramel corn is better than Cracker Jack, but doesn’t replace Garrett’s hot, buttery version. Te brownie is dry, but the house-made vanilla ice cream is silky and light.

As I scoop some up, I think if there’s any reason the woman in the white dress left, maybe it was because she was a serious foodie who couldn’t stand the pulsing scene. If so, she missed out. Despite the iffy dessert, Sodikoff’s cooking is more complex and tasty than most other comers in the local gastropub genre. But be warned: Gilt is as much gastro-club as it is pub—a true treasure to those looking for killer eats and a killer night.

Gilt Bar

Rating: ***

230 W. Kinzie St., 312.464.9544

This article first appeared in CS in a different form.