My Blue Heaven

10.28.09

Blue 13 might be the only upscale restaurant in Chicago sporting a picture of a man weeping tears of blood. Pair that with black snakeskin patterned banquettes, framed Sailor Jerry tattoo graphics and a candlelit skull atop the bar, and you have a River North eatery where, at first glance, you may feel out of place sans late ’70s studded dog collar and tight black jeans. 

But at Blue, the rock ’n’ roll vibe that designer Tim Kitzrow has intended is juxtaposed with a surprising number of gray-hairs in button-down dress shirts, making my wife and I, and not my fiftysomething in-laws seated across the table, the outliers. In fact, this dining room, with its dark woods, exposed bricks, cushy seating, potted bamboo and dimmed mood lighting, is starting to look a lot more Crate and Barrel than CBGB. Though I doubt the folks at Crate and Barrel would blast a rock- heavy soundtrack from indie darlings like Silversun Pickups in their showrooms.

Enamored, I turn on a program on my iPhone that can “listen” to a short snippet of music and return the name of the song. Unfortunately the hum of conversation is interfering with the software, so I hold my phone aloft like a drunken concertgoer flipping open a Zippo during a “Free Bird” solo to get it closer to the speakers.

Two minutes later, general manager/partner/ occasional maitre’d Dan Marunowksi slips me a piece of paper with the artist and name of the song (The Appleseed Cast—”Fishing the Sky”). That kind of rock-star move is the type of anticipatory service you’d expect to find at a Michelin three-star, not a neighborhood spot, no matter how high-reaching. I grin sheepishly. “Don’t worry, man,” he says. “People do that with their phones here all the time.”

The daily changing playlist at Blue serves as a great background to relax and order a drink, and while my wife is bobbing her head to the beat, I sneak a swig of her Veev Açai Spa Cooler. The cool notes on the muddled mint- and lime-infused drink, made with Veev’s clear açai berry liquor, make it taste like a shot of Wrigley Doublemint and cooling spring rain. My own Sailor Jerry Manhattan is a touch cloying—though the vanilla notes are enhanced by the sweet vermouth as advertised, I think it needs a woody bourbon for balance. But while making cocktail recs, our server picks up where Marunowski’s service left off, and guides my father-in-law to a nice, bright, citrus-spiked amaretto stone sour.

While Blue 13 could stand alone as a cool drinking hideout, sleeve-tattooed chef/partner Chris Curren ensures that this venue is a proper one-stop noshing shop of rocked-out contemporary American cuisine. Maybe it’s his killer tat of a Kunisada-style samurai that brings Japanese inspiration to the pork belly appetizer, where fiery islands of spicy kimchi floating in a flashy ginger-lime broth are tempered by the silky fat of a hefty, crispy-skinned hunk of pork belly crowned with a crispy, briny oyster. In any case, I’m thankful our server brought a spoon with this plate. Though my mother-in-law snatches the last piece of belly from me, I still feel victorious scooping up the spoils of the remaining lip-smacking broth.

Curren’s Steak and Eggs on Acid dish features sunny-side-up quail egg-topped filet slices, which, sporting a ruby red, medium rare center, are fanned over a bed of potato and onion pierogi girded by swooshes of wasabi and house-made steak sauce. I generally view steak as a restaurant cliché, but the comforting richness of the runny egg and the solid potato dumplings (one complaint: the dough could be a touch less heavy) cut by the sharp bite of wasabi make this an unavoidable treat.

I may be the critic, but tonight proves that father (in-law) does know best: His crispy pan-crusted scallops entrée is my favorite plate. Peppery watercress and zingy lemon vinaigrette mingle, lightening the accompanying creamy sweet corn- and Manchego cheese-stuffed ravioli (here, the dough is light and pliant) and complementing the sweetness of the scallop. With everyone craning to get a bite, the tangle of arms, hands and utensils hovering over his plate has our table looking like an impromptu game of Twister.

At this point, properly stuffed, we do the only sensible thing and order three more desserts. Blue runs sans pastry chef, so these confections are all, remarkably, Curren’s work. The best, “coffee and doughnuts”—a smart and casual integration of the molecular gastronomy technique called spherification—features hot, cinnamon-spiced doughnuts and teardrop-shaped, gelatin-skinned coffee nibs sporting a liquid center.

I recently tried the spherification process to make blueberry “caviar” at home, and my results tasted like a SuperBall. I’ll spare you the Ph.D. dissertation that our server nimbly gives us about the whole technique, and just say Curren coaxes out some serious flavor. His delightful “drips” burst in your mouth, releasing a bracingly pure coffee flavor that ensures you’ll skip the standard, suddenly boring, post-dinner cappuccino.

After years of reviewing, very few spots, even the five-star places, have cooked every single protein spot on. Leaving here, I realize that Blue 13 has delivered eight plates of meat, fish and vegetables at perfect temperature and, when appropriate, seared with a machine-precise crispy crust. That’s not to say that every flavor or accoutrement was perfect—red curry sauce with halibut could have used less curry and more salt; though the spicy consommè served with the crab and corn spring roll was as slurpworthy as the pork belly kimchi broth, the flavor of the crab in the roll was dull. But I rarely see cooking consistency of this caliber, proving that chef Curren, a relative unknown who’s spent most of his time in the garage band phase of chefdom, is ready to rock the arena-sized crowds who should be flocking to Blue 13.

Blue 13

RATING: ***

416 W. Ontario St., 312.787.1400

This article first appeared in CS in a different form.

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