Mini-review: City Tavern
1416 S. Michigan Ave. 312-663-1278
Rating: !!! (out of 4) Off to a good start
The backstory: When chef Kendal Duque cooked up the opening menu at Sepia in the West Loop, I wasn't the only one who was impressed. Diners around the city raved, and he earned a James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist nomination in the Best Chef: Great Lakes category. But since he left the restaurant in 2009, it sure seemed like Duque hasn't had the change to live up to the tasty precedent he set there. He landed at short-lived Lakeview lounge Cuna, where the half-finished decor distracted from his dishes. Then with promise of opening his own restaurant, Mainstay Hospitality recruited him to freshen up the menu at its South Loop steakhouse, Chicago Firehouse; though he added lighter, more seasonal bites into the mix, the servers still pushed the steak. Now he's fully back in the driver's seat at that promised restaurant of his own: City Tavern, which has taken up residence in the address of Mainstay's shuttered pub Grace O'Malley's.
The crowd: A mini-manifesto on City Tavern's menu says it's inspired by the 18th century tavern, "a meeting place for poets, artists, government officials and the common man." During my visits, the modern-day South Loop version of that was a fussy couple accosting the bartender with cocktail questions and gray-haired diners using their smart phones as flashlights to see the menu (it wasn't really that dark).
Likes: Salmon with lump crab and asparagus comes ($16) with a blood orange bearnaise that's lick-the-plate delicious, while whole-wheat pasta with porcini mushrooms, smoked duck and a raw egg yolk ($15) is a fun spin on the classic Italian carbonara. Other new hangouts are focusing on whiskey, gin or absinthe, but City Tavern has a lengthy list of rums, true to the time period it's channeling. A rum and Coke made with the amber-hued, subtly flavored house-made cola is a simple winner, while house cocktails (all $10) such as Mrs. O'Leary's Summer Milk Punch (rum with ginger liqueur, citrus juices and clarified milk) are brilliantly balanced and seriously sippable.
Gripes: Though our server talked up the flatbreads ($7) for the table to share, one topped with baby octopus, tomatoes and ricotta salata (salted, aged sheep's milk cheese) wasn't especially memorable, and the fennel-anise vinaigrette dressing the baby beet salad ($10) was too subtle to live up to the advertised flavors. Pork belly sliders with duck fat-fried chips ($9) could have been mistaken for that of any number of bars with less capable chefs.
Bottom line: City Tavern doesn't have the same destination-worthy pull that Sepia did under Duque, but South Loopers are lucky to have it in the neighborhood.