About three and a half years ago I inventoried the many crimes against makimono, sashimi, and nigiri committed at River North's Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar, an ostentatious River North restaurant that confuses disrespect for inventiveness when it comes to raw fish and other familiar Japanese foods. Now the principals behind that operation have returned with the Franklin Room, a whiskey-focused subterranean den trafficking in relatively American, pub-style food with an occasional Asian touch. That's not to say there aren't some startling combinations, dishes almost too disturbing to contemplate, like mushroom risotto with black rice, barbecued eel, and Parmesan; shrimp wrapped in puff pastry; and an $18 Wagyu burger topped with a soft-shell crab, a fried egg, bacon, and two kinds of cheese.
Not surprisingly, some of the best things on the menu are the simplest, starting with a small selection of house-cured fish—salmon with gingery whipped cream and roe, albacore with pickled red onions, and salty trout paté with a ribbon-thin slice of green apple—all served on fake newsprint similar to the stuff that used to cover the tables at Wendy's.
I discerned some consistencies over my visits to the Franklin Room: generally starters were better than entrees, vegetable dishes trumped meaty ones, and with two obnoxious exceptions the kitchen displayed deftness with its deep-fryer. There's no better expression of the last than a bowl of crispy ginger slices, a spicy, lemony snack I'd like to have in my life every day. (A tablemate compared their flavor to Pledge, and quickly added "but in a good way.") Cauliflower tots in no way resemble their grated-potato forebears, but they're nicely fried Parmesan-crusted florets served with a blue cheese dipping sauce. Similarly, taut, bouncy fried shrimp cakes are balanced with a cool but spicy aioli. Chunks of fried tomato provide welcome contrast under a blanket of gooey burrata. Lightly battered fried smelts have a delicate, greaseless texture even with a heavy dusting of cheddar cheese powder, a weird combination with a startling blandness.
Slices of roasted eggplant buried under a blanket of greens and powered by the umami-saturated forces of miso and Parmesan come close to achieving peak meatiness. Crisp snow peas with shredded carrot buzz with wasabi heat. And brussels sprouts—one of the weariest margin-stretching menu items of the decade—offer a welcome change served halved with oyster mushrooms and smothered in pesto and Parmesan.
The demarcation between the agreeability of the appetizers and the implausibility of entrees isn't so clear with a skillful presentation of broiled Spanish mackerel with nothing but a charred lemon and some mixed greens to distract from its simple pleasure. But things go off the rails with a towering fried bologna sandwich loaded with tomato jam, bacon vinaigrette, pickled red onions, provolone, cheddar, and thick, overpoweringly sweet slices of pineapple. Some plates are constructed with ham-fisted sloppiness, like a dried-out, withered lamb shank mounted on a pile of heavy pancetta grits, while the house-made corned beef is served in hacked-up irregular chunks and plated weirdly beside a grilled cheese sandwich overfilled and bulging with purple cabbage sauerkraut and the house's de facto cheese combo of cheddar and provolone (which appears on the menu a total of five times). It's like someone dropped a Reuben on the plate from street level.
The fryer fails when it comes to chicken, jacketing the stringy meat in an impenetrable armor of batter, like Han Solo encased in carbonite. But its most egregious use occurs with the production of a chicken-fried rib eye, a conception so wrongheaded a critic is basically required to submit to it. This tragedy occurred once before when the Dawson opened, prompting the question "Why would you do that to a perfectly good steak?" and the corollary "Unless it's not a good steak." That was certainly the answer when I threw myself at it. Hidden beneath the greasy fried crust ran thick veins of glistening, jiggling fat that easily made up more than two-thirds of the eight-ounce portion. That might fly above the arctic circle, but it'd be hard to find a Chicagoan depraved enough to stomach it.
While the Franklin Room's food consistently straddles the line between gross and oddly compelling, its main reason for being is quite a bit more serious. There are some 300 different bottles of whiskey on hand—American, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Japanese, and everything in between. They're available in one-ounce pours and quarter bottles, many at markups close to what you'd pay for a full bottle at retail. But the bartenders are passionate and knowledgeable on the subject, and if you steer clear of the entrees, you might have an interesting time touring the world's brown liquors.