5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West 312-801-2100
Rating: 3.5 (out of four) Heating up
Starbucks, Five Guys Burgers, LA Fitness, Chipotle—there's no question that the Harper Court redevelopment has brought a number of shiny new chains to Hyde Park. While I like an overstuffed burrito and an iced mocha as much as the next girl, the indie hangouts that have arrived in the neighborhood through this partnership between University of Chicago and the city of Chicago are what I've been anticipating most. In November, chef Matthias Merges opened A10, a European-style restaurant that's equal parts stylish and delicious. The latest addition is The Promontory, named for the scenic Promontory Point in Burnham Park.
If my friends and I are going to spend our whole night out at one single place, we need three things: food, drinks and something to do besides watch each other eat and drink. With a three-pronged concert venue-restaurant-bar concept—plus a killer patio—The Promontory is poised to offer just that.
They know what they're doing
The Promontory's owners know a thing or two about entertainment. Bruce Finkelman is behind Ukrainian Village's Empty Bottle and the adjacent Bite Cafe, and Craig Golden runs Evanston music venue Space; together, they also own Longman & Eagle in Logan Square and the Pilsen resto-bar-concert venue trio of Dusek's, Punch House and Thalia Hall. Though the character of the second-floor music space depends on how its concert bookings shake out over time (see below), it was clear as soon as I stepped inside that Promontory Point inspired more than just the name. A towering glass wall with rows of leafy planter boxes extends from the host stand through to the dining room, while tiny light bulbs hanging above the rectangular bar look like a starry sky when the sun goes down. And then there's the open fireplace in the kitchen (the "hearth," more on that later), which Finkelman said was inspired by the Point's stone fire pits. The patio, despite the fact that it quite literally faces a parking lot, is a breezy escape from 53rd Street. On the night I visited, the bar and dining room crowd was a little plaid-and-beard, a little academic and a little hip-hop—picture a bigger, more modern Longman & Eagle with a really nice attache case.
That hearth is seriously hot
The Promontory's owners are calling it "hearth to table," and while that might sound like a new foodie trend that you haven't caught onto yet, it's really the description that the owners made up to describe the open-fire cooking that chef/partner Jared Wentworth is doing in the kitchen. It's not an oven, but rather an open fireplace with different sections for quick grilling and slow roasting; it's fueled by 300 pounds of cherry and oak wood and heats up to 800 to 900 degrees, Wentworth said. With a fire that big and hot, you can bet that Wentworth and his crew are cooking just about everything on it. My server raved about the panzanella ($11) made with charred romaine and toasted squares of cornbread, but it was the least flavorful of the hearth-cooked dishes I tried. I'd rather save room for the Kentucky burgoo ($24), a game meat-filled Appalachian stew that Wentworth said typically "gets cooked to death." To avoid ending up with a mushy mess, he cooks the meats—super-tender pork collar, rabbit sausage and delicate, smoky quail—separately before reuniting them with a tomato-based broth. Though the word "hearth" is repeated a near eyeroll-inducing amount on the menu and website, this dish is what it's all about.
Take a look in the mirror
Beyond the hearth-cooked meats and veggies, a lot of Wentworth's dishes also have a Mediterranean bent. The mezze spread ($18)—with its addictive truffled white bean spread, smooth green garbanzo hummus and deliciously salty olive tapenade and flatbread for dipping—is a vegetarian snack that the whole table will end up digging into. The garlicky lamb burger ($16) smeared with smoked feta, picked red onion and the same olive tapenade packed all my favorite Greek flavors into one sandwich, though I don't think I'll ever prefer the molten, creamy interior of the chickpea fries it's served with to regular old french fries. Before you flash your date a smile or head upstairs for a concert, check your teeth; between all the char-flecked meats and olive tapenades, you can probably guess what mine looked like.
Meet the cocktail matrix
For a place with the simple motto "Just good drinks," the cocktail menu looked pretty complicated at first glance. It's what director of operations William Duncan calls "the cocktail matrix," an idea he masterminded when The Promontory was in its early planning stages more than two years ago. Spirits (rum, gin, whiskey, tequila) are listed along the left side of the chart, while styles—CO2 (carbonated), shaken and stirred—run across the top; the 12 cocktails ($10) fall into place below and are all subtle twists on classic drinks created primarily by bar manager Dustin Drankiewicz. It's actually a pretty clever device to help you meet your new favorite cocktail: Once you've chosen the booze you're in the mood for, you can scroll over to pick an option that's fizzy (CO2), tart and refreshing (shaken drinks all include fruit juice) or a more potent slow sipper (these stirred drinks are spirits-only). I dug the Burnham Blinker (a sour and spicy mix of rye, raspberry shrub and fresno pepper named for Promontory Park's creator Daniel Burnham), but the Promontory Paloma, mixed with soda made from "hearth-charred grapefruit," didn't deliver any of the smokiness I expected. I was totally won over, though, by the booze-switcheroos that are the Jamaican Old Fashioned—the classic cocktail with rum instead of bourbon and La Colombe coffee bitters—and the Anejo Sazerac, a textbook sazerac, but with anejo tequila instead of rye. A little cocktail sketch next to each drink shows you exactly what you're getting—and served as my first clue that the tall icy mug in front of no less than five bargoers was the Roots & Malt, a bourbon- or rye-spiked housemade root beer.
Don't overlook the wine
It'd be easy to sip your way around the cocktail menu all night, but overlooking the wine list would be a shame. Wine-savvy servers, more than 20 by-the-glass options and unstuffy descriptions from sommelier Diana Hawkins—like "raspberry, herbs, BBQ grill" to describe Banshee pinot noir—make pairing wine with your meal totally painless. If you and your friends can agree on a bottle, there are plenty of $30-ish options, but check out the screen above the entrance first; that's where Hawkins showcases a wine not normally uncorked for by-the-glass pours. Beer drinkers can rely on six draft options, including one rotating choice from Moody Tongue, Jared Rouben's new Pilsen brewery specializing in beers made for pairing with food.
The desserts are all dressed up
Spotting two key words—s'mores souffle ($9)—on the dessert menu from pastry chef Jeremy Brutzkus was enough for me to save room for sweets. The comforting combo of smoked graham cracker ice cream, chocolate souffle and charred marshmallow cream was like the classic campfire treat, all grown up and graduated from pastry school. The other desserts I tried—composed interpretations of banana pudding and a neapolitan ice cream sandwich (both $9)—were maybe too grown-up. The painstakingly plated, deconstructed versions of classic desserts seemed overly formal compared with the rest of the experience. I would have been happy with an actual ice cream sandwich for a few bucks less.
The bottom line: Others have attempted to rock the bar-restaurant-music trifecta (ahem, City Winery) and were less than successful out of the gate, and in a neighborhood starved for fresh entertainment options, the team behind The Promontory could have gotten away with a lot less. Hyde Park's residents deserve more bars and restaurants like this that are as ambitious as they are accessible.
RedEye reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. email@example.com | @redeyeeatdrink
The Promontory's music lineup skews old school
By Ernest Wilkins, RedEye Sound Board
The Promontory's initial lineup showcases some significant names in jazz, blues and rock, choices that blend well with the neighborhood's rich musical history. With bookings like legendary saxophonist Maceo Parker, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that The Promontory (which seats 300 and can hold up to 500 for standing-room shows) will appeal to attendees of the popular Hyde Park Jazz Festival.
There's no denying, however, that so far the lineup lacks many artists appealing to younger audiences. With the exception of last weekend's hastily announced Lollapalooza after-show featuring indie rock act The Weeks, The Promontory doesn't have a single artist booked under the age of 35. Acts like Chicago blues legend Syl Johnson (Sept. 12) and former James Brown collaborator Parker (Sept. 13) are in their 70s. It begs the question: Even though something is a lot better than nothing in a neighborhood thirsty for more entertainment, why does the programming skew so old?
Owner Bruce Finkelman said The Promontory's initial lineup isn't necessarily reflective of the venue's long-term programming. "We're just starting [to program shows]," he said. "For us to wait for some kind of perfectly curated list of shows that looks good on paper and is appealing to everyone isn't a good idea. We're interested in shows that the community will enjoy and have shown support for because our mission is to cater to the neighborhood. Acts like The South Side Big Band [Aug. 16] have expressed that they only want to play on the South Side, so we want to give them a place to do that."
Three Sound Board-approved upcoming acts:
Maceo Parker, Sept. 13. $20-$60
He isn't a saxophonist; he's a brass-coated wrecking ball. If you caught the recent James Brown biopic "Get on Up," you're already wanting to check out Parker (played in the film by Chicago native Craig Robinson). He was an integral part of Brown's band, as well as a member of Parliament-Funkadelic in the '70s.
Roy Ayers, Sept. 20. $45-$55
A pioneer in jazz and funk, the vibist's 1976 album "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" has been sampled by everyone from Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) to Mary J. Blige.
Kinky Friedman, Oct. 19. $15-$32.
A controversial, Chicago-born, Texas-raised country singer and satirist guaranteed to start conversation.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @ernestwilkins