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Alone and unsure at Untitled

Hopeless service subverts grand ambitions at this massive "speakeasy"

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There are two types of people in this world: those who will descend the long black steps below 111 W. Kinzie and feel as if they've stepped into the Cotton Club, and those who, upon making that descent, will slowly realize to their dismay that they've stepped into a bottomless pit.

Despite Untitled's silly pretensions toward secrecy—there's no sign advertising its awkward name except for the one touting valet service—I felt I could like this cavernous "speakeasy" with its imposing black doors, multiple dining rooms and bars, curtained booths, back patio, "secret" entrance, "whiskey library," and performance spaces hosting jazz and burlesque acts. Its scope and ambition are impressive, and everyone gets into the act, from the leggy hostesses in little black dresses and stilettos to the suspendered servers to the purposeful floor managers in tam-o'- shanters yapping urgently into their headsets. While the Prohibition shtick seems laughably clumsy in some ways—a speakeasy with a jumbo-size screening of a Cubs game?—it is remarkably polished in others. It feels, at first, like a living, breathing entity, charged with the sort of energy that might impart a shared sense of celebration among hundreds of strangers.

And surprisingly, for a place whose priorities seem to be divided equally among food, drink, and live entertainment, the food isn't bad at all. Of all the overextended, unfocused River North scene palaces (Hubbard Inn, Paris Club, Sunda, etc), the kitchen at Untitled seems to execute better than most. Former Mercat a la Planxa and Vermilion chef Joseph Heppe has created a menu that "aims to utilize seasonal ingredients in a creative way, to excite the palate. Selections are inspired by the expansion of the American palette [sic] of the early 20th century." I have no clue what that means, and I don't believe the menu itself will win prizes for originality or clarity, but almost everything on it arrives from the kitchen swiftly—even when the dining rooms are packed—and most everything tastes good too, from a selection of (mostly outsourced) charcuterie and cheeses to a predomination of small shared plates to the relatively shorter supply of large ones.

The promise of seasonality seems remarkably true for an operation of this scale. There's arugula with firm but sweet grilled peaches, delicately battered and deep-fried squash blossoms filled with warm farmer's cheese, favas and mache sprinkled about with bloodred bresola shavings, and the ubiquitous beet salad with goat cheese, this one accented by golden raisins and pistachios.

Summer fruits—pickled, conserved, and reduced into sauces—appear all over an otherwise meaty assortment of dishes, brightening familiar proteins. It almost makes you feel virtuous eating slices of pinkish pork chop dressed with pickled plums and bitter dandelion greens; or goat-stuffed dumplings lightened by blackberry barbecue sauce; or cubes of fatty braised pork belly with sour rhubarb mostarda, zucchini, and turnip puree; or seared squab breast slices arrayed atop a pastry pocket of mushroom duxelles, sauced with blueberry conserves.

Plates with a less obviously summerlike tone bode well for Heppe's efforts for the rest of the year. Don't bother attempting to share a loose, juicy bison burger topped with tomato jam and giardiniera—consuming less than the whole will make feel like you've missed something important. The chocolate-bourbon sauce accompanying sliced duck breast recalls a Bayless mole, and a Manhattan chowder—a rarity in Chicago—has whole clams augmented by mussels and fish, bathed in a tomatoey, butter-mounted, and cognac-kissed liquid that seems more of a sauced dish than a soup.

With that track record I'd wager the desserts are pretty good too, but I wouldn't know. On each visit runners were on top of everything, but my table was abandoned by its assigned servers, who failed to check in, failed to inquire if I'd like to spend more money, and failed to return unless hailed in the manner of a drowning victim. I wonder how much the restaurant loses on customers who would order another round or another plate or two if only there was someone around to hear them. By the time I'd been able to collar a server to bring a dessert menu I'd begun to envision apocalyptic scenarios in which the city above came tumbling down upon the basement bacchanal, entombing the party within until the bubbly ran dry and the strong begin to devour the weak.

The much-touted beverage program doesn't seem likely to engender much goodwill either. The restaurant boasts "the largest selection of American whiskey in the world," housed in the dedicated whiskey library—it's another bar, set off a lounge. But there's no printed list available, and some bartenders in other rooms don't seem to have been granted the power to access it; on one occasion this prevented the preparation of a cocktail on the house list, designed by Matthew Lipsky (formerly of the late MorSo). Lipsky has since departed the restaurant, which might explain the atrocious execution of a few classics: a bourbon and lime Lion's Tail dosed with hallucinogenic levels of allspice liqueur, and a cloying calvados-gin-apricot brandy Golden Dawn that went down like children's cough syrup. The original potions fare no better: a tequila-Campari-grapefruit-moscato concoction called the Bitter Bonnie is a supersize drink so treacly that table runners seemed afraid to approach it when it remained undrunk throughout one meal.

As crowded as it gets inside Untitled, it sometimes seems too loud to taste anything at all (which might be doing the cocktails a favor). And for all its vastness and initial celebratory vibe, in the end it feels stuffy and claustrophobic. That—along with the dreadful service—makes it the kind of party where you feel utterly alone.

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