The brasserie-style awning outside reads “Food Art Reality Hope Life Literature Liberte .” Inside, there’s an English bar, an all-American dance floor, an Italianate art gallery-cum-coffeehouse, a brasserielike main dining room, a French-flavored cafe. The kitchen, behind glass, is hidden by dark red theatre curtains. Oprah Winfrey is seating guests.
You’ve heard of restaurant as theatre? This is restaurant as multi-media event. This is The Eccentric--Richard Melman’s most ambitious production yet.
Melman is Chicago’s restaurant whiz kid, the founder and corporate proprietor (with his Lettuce Entertain You company) of at least a score of eating places of every kind, mostly in or near the Windy City. There’s the seminal singles-and-salads-bar called R.J. Grunt’s (his first restaurant, vintage 1971), the kicky Ed Debevic’s diner chain (Southern California’s only direct experience with Melman, through the Beverly Hills and Torrance branches), and the elegant old-school Pump Room and the top-rated contemporary French-American place called Ambria.
Other popular Melman establishments include Avenzare, serving modern/mainstream Italian food; Scoozi, Melman’s not-entirely-serious interpretation of a rustic trattoria; Hatdance, an upscale, imaginative Mexican establishment with Japanese (!) accents, and Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, a tapas emporium.
The Eccentric is a bit harder to characterize--which is presumably the whole point. Eccentricity indeed is rampant. Every corner of the place is fashioned in a different style. The very entryway has three personalities: A little seating arrangement in the foyer suggests a London men’s club; behind it is a vitrine filled half with oysters and clams on ice, half with fresh fruit and vegetables. “The shellfish is something you’d see in a French brasserie,” says Melman, “and then right next to it you have something very pure and healthy-looking to suggest American food.”
The main dining room is big and open and rather old-fashioned looking, but with plenty of twists. Every grouping of banquettes is upholstered with different fabrics. There are 18 or 19 different kinds of floors, from terrazzo to parquet to plain concrete. The room is lit at different points with bare spotlights, glass-bead chandeliers and mock candelabra decorated with oak leaves and acorns. The walls are crammed with art, most of it by Chicago artists.
Melman has plans for other artists to paint “live” in one corner of the room, and may institute poetry readings as well. He has even considered the possibility of opening the curtains that hide the kitchen, installing a microphone, and letting the chef address diners periodically. Meanwhile, he says, “I hope there’ll be dancing in the aisles sometimes.” A sign on a pillar reads, “Stay Real/Never Dull/No Rules”.
The Eccentric is like an anti-theme theme restaurant. “If this place were a movie,” says Melman, “it would be called ‘A Club for Eccentrics Meets the Great American Bistro.’ ”
Indeed, both “bistro” and “American” are appropriate terms for the food here. Old-fashioned escargots bourguignonne, French onion soup and roasted chicken with thyme share menu space with Caesar salad, a Cheddar-cheeseburger on a walnut bun, grilled swordfish and chocolate-banana creme brulee. The pate is made of chicken livers; the crab meat gratin is served with toast points.
Melman’s chef at The Eccentric is the talented Michael Kornick, who cooked at the Quilted Giraffe in New York and then at Gordon’s and at Melman’s Pump Room in Chicago.
In developing a menu, though, Melman had the help of at least a dozen other chefs--he is very much a believer in the collaborative process and in teamwork--among them, such former Los Angeles residents as Tim Cushman (of Trumps and the late 385 North), Octavio Bessera and Fred Eric (original chefs at the Flaming Colossus club and longtime associates of Joachim Splichal at the Regency Club and the short-lived Max au Triangle), and Susan Regis and Leslie Mackie (for some years members of Lydia Shire’s kitchen team at L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel and Langan’s Brasserie, among other places).
Not everything this high-powered crew came up with is equally successful, it must be said--or at least it wasn’t during The Eccentric’s first weeks of life. A spicy fish hash with cucumber relish, for instance, was mushy and mild one evening (in marked contrast to the superb, not dissimilar crab meat hash served on the breakfast menu at the 21 East Hotel).
A dish dubbed “raviolio Ocfredio” (after the aforementioned Octavio and Fred)--toasted cheese ravioli in a light tomato sauce--was resolutely ordinary; roast duck with red cabbage was dry and bland. On the other hand, there was a perfectly simple roasted artichoke with pungent “garlic aioli " (is there any other kind?); a lovely salad of curly endive, bacon and Roquefort in sherry vinaigrette; and a delicious paillard of beef with Cabernet sauce--though the fried leeks promised with it by the menu (presumably an inspiration from chef Cushman’s months with fried-leek specialist Jose Lampreia at the trendy Maison Blanche in Paris) were not available, and have reportedly been permanently 86’d.
The aforementioned cheeseburger was terrific. So was a side order of the so-called Oprah’s potatoes, mashed with a hint of horseradish--a recipe from you-know-who. Oprah Winfrey is a partner in the restaurant, in fact, and she really does come in and seat people sometimes. She also, says Melman, takes part in creative meetings--and was observed, shortly before the restaurant opened, peeling and mashing her own potatoes, trying to get that recipe just right.
If The Eccentric sounds like a hard act to follow, well, Melman already has something else lined up.
“It’ll be a place called Bub’s,” he says, “though that name might change. It’ll be a hillbilly restaurant with a carwash attached--a dine ‘n’ shine type of place.”
The Eccentric, 159 West Erie Street, Chicago. (312) 787-8390. AE, MC, VISA. Dinner for two (food only): $25-65.