"Have you ever used the iPad before?"
That's what some servers ask when they present the formidable wine list at C Chicago, a sweeping seafood spot from the folks behind Chicago Cut Steakhouse.
The question sounds condescending, but I suspect the hand-holding stems from an understanding of the mothership steak house, where the demographic skews more Luddite than it does at the average River North ball pit.
For a restaurant with such an ungoogleable name (and an unfortunate resemblance to Marcus Samuelsson's failed seafood restaurant C House), it's certainly thronged with people willing to pay extortionate prices for whole fish and refined platings from chef Bill Montagne, a recent graduate of Lettuce Entertain You's corporate kitchens and a former sous chef at New York's Le Bernardin. C Chicago is selling the chef's connections with east-coast purveyors as its purported advantage over competitors. If you're judging solely on the display of iced fish, where servers will invite you to eyeball, prod, and perhaps name your very own, then the hype seems believable.
This mountain of fish positioned at the rear of the dining room is the philosophical center of the space—the former Keefer's, erased from memory with a massive tropical fish tank to enjoy on your way to restrooms and a giant shark mobile in the bar. White-linen-covered tables and emerald-green chairs are situated in a wide-open dining room that's ideal for gawking at your fellows as if you're looking for someone better to talk to at the yacht club. If you're exiled to the second-floor dining area there won't be much people watching, but at least there's a giant flat-screen TV to distract you from your companions.
But it's the fish-market feature that proves to be C Chicago's most appealing aspect. There you inspect branzino, Dover sole, black bass, dorade royale, red snapper, and turbot priced by the pound. Look them in their empty eyes for telltale milkiness or blood—you'll find little, if any. Lean in and sniff for signs of ripeness, you'll smell nothing but the sea. Select your catch and it's off to the kitchen, where the fish is roasted. Then, on a gueridon, it's paraded into the dining room where, with all the solemnity of a priest at a baptism, your server will raise his tools and begin to methodically mangle it like an organ thief.
The noble skill of filleting a fish tableside does not belong in the hands of novices. I've witnessed three of these whole-fish dissections, and in each case a lack of confidence and a rush to debone produced shredded fillets and random scraps across the plate. The case of a magnificent turbot, baked in a salted dough crust, was particularly horrific; its firm, creamy flesh looked like it had weathered a shark frenzy. This is a particularly cruel misadventure not just because the fish truly are wonderful specimens, cooked lovingly in the kitchen and minimally sauced if at all, but because they're dearly priced. Nobody should mind paying well for excellent sea creatures, but running between $40 and $55 a pound (market price may vary), these animals—and their eaters—deserve more respect. Please retrain the meatball surgeons.
Montagne's composed dishes—apps, soups, salads, and entrees—on the other hand, are tightly executed. Many of them, like a tuna tartare topped with a fragile avocado roulade and purple wisps of seaweed, are simply beautiful, although there's little evidence of the kimchi furikake that's supposed to be on that plate. But there's nothing subdued about a serving of cauliflower pulsed to a couscouslike consistency, given richness and spice from Espelette-pepper-spiked yogurt, and topped with a vibrant headdress of shaved asparagus, beet chips, lotus root, peas, and favas. Lengths of tender octopus tentacles and shaved fennel take a shower in a nice, tart sauce vierge, while a creamy crab bisque is poured over a construction of charred corn, piquillo peppers, and toasted brioche doughnuts. Lovely, refined plating like this makes it easy to see what Montagne brings with him from Le Bernardin.
But not all of the dishes are well thought-out. A scallop carpaccio, arrayed like a mandala of thinly cut opalescent coins, is gorgeous, but is overwhelmed by red pepper, Espelette, basil, and chives. Montagne is apparently fond of the Espelette pepper, which also colors a vibrant red basquaise sauce that's set off by squirts of a squid-ink vinaigrette; both serve as the background for an alabaster-white (over-) baked cod fillet.
For dessert there's a perfectly terrible-looking neon-green key lime bombe, rolled in what appear to be corn flakes and filled with creamy, tart goodness. Get it. Otherwise an icy chocolate vacherin, a tiramisu in a rocks glass, and a forgettable pineapple financier round out a fairly unremarkable quartet of desserts.
Now, about that wine list: it's fun to play with (if you know how), with 200-some choices, searchable by region, varietal, vintage, name, and whether they're available by the glass, few of which are budget friendly. There are some—say, a $33 2013 Chateau Grand Traverse Riesling or a Tami Nero d'Avola at $46—but a great many blow past the $100 mark, topping out at $1,500 for a 2011 Harlan Estate cab.
All of which goes to show that C Chicago is built for whales, or at least people who aren't distracted by prices that remind the rest of us how increasingly precious fish is. It's perhaps not a bad value for folks who don't mind eating $14 deviled eggs topped with trout roe while Atlantis is sinking. v