Restaurants

Modern bars serve creative food and drink

Monday, July 20, 2009

Until recently, 'bar food' meant simply burgers and fries. Rarely would creative chefs be involved in Chicago taverns.

But that's changing.

There are still 'dive' bars of course. If you really need a shot-and-a-beer, or some beef jerky, Chicago has plenty of legendary joints. But there's a new movement going on. Handmade cocktails, small, craft beer producers and best of all, high-quality food. I found three of these 'modern bars' where the food and drink are exceptional.

Bar kitchens are nothing new, but the trend toward serious bar food is more recent. At the Tiny Lounge - a hard-to-find, sign-less outpost in the North Center neighborhood - patrons come for the creative dishes as much as they do for the hand-crafted libations.

"We're a bar that specializes in cocktails. With an extensive beer list and quality food that is made from scratch," said Mark Johnson of the Tiny Lounge.

We're not talking cheese pizza either. More like ground lamb with mint leaves and tangy yogurt or an elegant salad with bits of fennel, tart grapefruit and perfectly-grilled scallops.

"People's tastes it seems have gotten more sophisticated and so I think people really appreciate having a wide range of things to choose from," Johnson said.

Humboldt Park has been the province of slacker bars serving PBR for a couple of bucks, but Rootstock's opening a few weeks ago changed all that. Their thoughtfully-chosen list of imported beers and hard-to-find wines is an indication that this is not a beer-and-a-shot kind of watering hole.

"Some of the wines are a very small production. And we are lucky that we have a great network of people who offer us some of these really beautiful beers and wines before everybody else," said Tonya Pyatt of Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar.

Pork belly and pate are smeared on French baguette, combined with cilantro to form a new take on a Vietnamese bahn mi. Lamb sausage rests above rainbow chard, offset by a crisp celery salad. Clearly, there's a lot of thought between food and wine pairings.

"We do try to make sure that we offer a variety of different wines and beer that do pair nicely with food," said Pyatt.

In the Fulton River District downtown, the Paramount Room is another source for exotic and esoteric microbrews. It's also been a favorite for industry employees, thanks to their late-night kitchen.

"Being in this business, especially in Chicago, for as long as I have there is nowhere to eat after work. And I don't want a greasy burger, even though we make great burgers here, I want some real food," said Stephen Dunne of The Paramount Room.

Tempura-fried green beans with a spicy lime dipping sauce go great with a beer, but so does coconut-marinated Amish chicken skewers with ginger-barbeque sauce. You'd be hard-pressed to find a bar in town with a foie gras terrine and pickled stone fruits.. but again, this is no ordinary bar.

"I think the public is demanding more, not just from cuisine but also from what they drink," Dunne said.

Paramount Room
415 N. Milwaukee Ave.
312-829-6300
-Priciest: Cornish Hen for $18
-Average entree: $11

Tiny Lounge
4352 N. Leavitt St.
773-463-0396
-Priciest: Cornish Hen for $23 -Average entree: $15

Rootstock
954 N. California Ave.
773-292-1616
-Priciest: 3 Cheese & 3 Charcuterie $21
-Average entree: $8

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