They say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Indeed, the guy who crooned that lyric, Frank Sinatra, epitomized that idea so truly that a table at the back of Chicago’s new incarnation of the Pump Room located in the Public (formerly Ambassador East) Hotel honors him. Unfortunately, Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the man responsible for the food on that table (the idea of the food anyway; Executive Chef Bradford Phillips oversees things daily), might just be the exception to that rule.
Vongerichten is to New York what Alain Ducasse is to Paris — a chef of chefs. Just as Velvet Underground albums are credited for inspiring almost every rock band of the last 40 years, Vongerichten’s books and restaurants launched a thousand toques. Vongerichten led by invention. Though it is now cliche, he is generally credited (there is dispute) as the originator of the molten lava cake. At the first Vong in New York City, he didn’t create fusion cooking, but his Thai/French approach was a poster child for the movement.
Unfortunately, Vongerichten attempts to crack Chicago have been a Xerox affair. His first was a fourth location of the Vong franchise on Hubbard. It lasted a couple of years before reconcepting as a mid-level noodle spot, the defunct Vong’s Thai Kitchen.
But that was then. Chicago is now one of best dining cities on earth. And yet, the new Pump Room is once again a reboot; of Vongerichten’s celebrated New York spot, ABC Kitchen. A plane ticket to New York is not as cheap as it once was; a reasonable Chicago facsimile of Vongerichten might be a gift in these troubling economic times. But while many of the dishes are similar, the execution (ABC is well regarded) of them is not.
That ingredients are organic, or seasonal, is pounded home by my server with the froth of an Occupy Wall Streeter denouncing corporate welfare. Yet the organic fried chicken breast is dry and the accompanying hot sauce butter parches my throat like a spritz of napalm. I’d much rather spend $19 on a Megabus ticket to Memphis and a dark meat plate at Gus’s World Famous.
Unfortunately a train to Maine is more expensive. Escaping the oven-roasted lobster served slightly raw in the center is not as easy. To mask the stench of the deceased, Romans burned cinnamon on their funeral pyres. I hope the oregano sprinkle on the lobster here does the same, but it is no match for the ammoniac waft coming off the carapace.
The ceviche, a scrim of tender fluke is burnished with lemon, very little of the promised sea salt, and a timid sprinkle of horseradish that should be replaced by an assertive chile.
The fried calamari works. The pretzel dusting lends a salty caramelized note missing from traditionally battered versions. Though the squid is served with mustard aioli, and spicy marinara so traditional, you’re reminded it’s a very thin line between Vongerichten’s genius and a well-run Olive Garden. Surely a confident iconoclast isn’t indulging our chain restaurant habits?
I find inspiration in crispy toast piled with bright lemon aioli-drizzled peekytoe crab.
Housemade tagliatelle features a satisfying chew and rich and grassy caramelized Brussels sprouts that banish horrid memories of the frozen Jolly Green Giant variety. The pistachios in the pasta’s pesto sauce lend a winey quality that’s superior to the butteriness of traditional pine nuts.
The sundae featuring salted caramel ice cream surrounded by a moat of glossy chocolate sauce and sprinkled with a buttery brittle of candied popcorn and peanuts is a literal and figurative crackerjack. Grape glaze on the doughnut plate recalls Smucker’s Concord Grape jelly so closely I wonder if pastry chef Kady Yon takes requests for PBJ with the crusts cut off. Then again the dense dry cake underneath invokes a Dolly Madison doughnut gem in the worst way.
If the sweet-onion-braised brisket French dip featuring shavings of melt-in-your-mouth meat and a rich beef tea like au jus were slung from a food truck, Quizno’s might go bankrupt. The dip unfortunately is only served at lunch, and the Pump Room, in its past flaming-meats-on-swords-Sinatra-bedazzling incarnation, and in this new Ian Schrager clubhouse for the rich and aged version, shines best at night.
Daylight also washes out the green velvet drapery and the gold leaf bar ceiling, while the drama of the orb chandeliers, which make you feel like you’re supping in a hip planetarium, is muted. This constellation of lights serves as a metaphor for the number of stars the Pump Room has served. Legendary Sun-Times gossip columnist Irving Kupcinet famously hung with Bogey and Bacall in his unofficial office, booth one.
One person Kup didn’t run into was Phil Collins, who in 1985 arriving sans jacket was turned away. Collins contemplated coming back to spill a cocktail on the floor in protest, but instead, thankfully for lovers of the ditty “Sussudio,” he channeled his resentment into the album “No Jacket Required.” Today, rapper Common holds court in the bar. I can’t tell, but I hope he’s not drinking the gin fizz, which tastes like a sludgy juniper-scented cream soda. Though it is my server’s “favorite drink,” her judgment is generally sound. The sins of the kitchen are not echoed in the friendly, anticipatory service, which comps dessert for the wait between courses.
My only quibble with the waiters is their Levi’s denim and Converse sneaker uniform, a look replicated ad nauseam elsewhere. Why not swap those Chuck Taylors for a pair of Air Jordans? After all, Schrager — the dude behind Public and the Pump Room — is strongly on record about how much he respects Chicago’s culture. And as the man behind Studio 54 and a slew of successful boutique hotels, Schrager certainly commands such respect in Manhattan. Still, it remains to be seen whether Chicagoans will return similar favor to him and Vongerichten.
THE PUMP ROOM ★½
1301 N. State; (312) 787-3700; pumproom.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.