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Two such places have opened in recent months: Gallery Bar in River North and Fame in Ukrainian Village. I visited both and left without having much to say about the art on display in either—although I do think I told my dining companion that Fame's decor reminded me of an Ed Hardy fever dream. And Gallery Bar had a decent amount of graffiti on the walls, but I'm pretty sure that's not for sale.
We'll start with Gallery Bar since I went there first. It's an art gallery/street food concept restaurant that specializes in Asianish fusion wraps called "bonzais" and beer cocktails (cocktails made with beer). Nothing about the previous sentence appeals to my sensibilities. In fact, it's just about a roundhouse kick to the old gag reflex. An open-minded friend and I went one evening for after-work drinks and snacks and, against all odds, liked what we got, the food in particular. I'm still not sold on beer cocktails.
The "bonzai" in which chef Patrick Glatz specializes are described on the menu as "Boutique Street Rolls" but are basically wraps that you can order "destructed" if you're sharing. That sounded annoying so we ordered the Wonton Ahi Nachos, an obnoxious-looking fusion dish that you can't be mad at because it tastes good. A heap of crispy, deep-fried wonton chips cut in a familiar triangular shape are topped with creme fraiche-wasabi sauce, a sweet-spicy tamari sauce, and gleaming pink cubes of raw tuna. Shreds of dried seaweed are scattered on top like so much frizzy hair. On the side (on the same plate) are three different slaws: warm sauteed cabbage, a Day-Glo green seaweed salad, and a sweet, nutty, crunchy one made from jicama matchsticks. The tuna was fresh-tasting, had wonderful texture, and all three slaws enhanced its supermild flavor in different ways.
We also ordered a dish off the specials menu, tacos loaded with shredded duck and topped with cherries that were sweet and tart in equal measure; the shells are also fried wontons, a brilliant construction since their they're dense enough to stand up to the rich, juicy meat without falling to pieces. I can't remember whether the order came with five or six of the tacos—whichever it was, the $12 price tag seemed entirely justified.
According to our very darling, very attentive waitress, the point of a beer cocktail is for the beer to impart its fizz on the finished product. I tried the Devil's Advocate, made with peach lambic, lemon juice, St. Germain, and gin, but the lambic was too lightly carbonated for the drink to end up with much fizz. The similarly acidic Propaganda—basically the same ingredients with champagne instead of lambic—also had a dry, puckery mouthfeel and lacked fizz. The Factory Girl, made with Woodford Reserve and pear liqueur and peach bitters, is a serviceable bourbon cocktail.
From beer cocktails to liquor infusions . . .
Despite the fact that lots of art is on display at Fame, the bar is the focal point. Someone who knows their way around a blackboard has chalked the back wall with dozens of little bits of tattoo flash (hence the Ed Hardy fever dream). It's well lit and showcases a row of spigoted vessels filled with liquors infused with things like berries and bacon (and vanilla beans, cucumbers, and herbs).
My dining companion and I tried cocktails made with the bacon-infused bourbon and strawberry-basil-infused rye. (If you order the infusions neat or up, it'll set you back $14, which seems insane; custom cocktails made with the infused liquors are a more reasonable $12 a pop.) The BIOF!—Bacon-Infused Old Fashioned, presumably—was thick with bacon flavor, which sounds like something people might like. I can't imagine anyone liking the slick white globs of congealed fat that float atop the drink, though. Rye Me a Basil Berry, a Manhattan made with the strawberry-basil rye, was really lovely; sweet without being cloying. Unfortunately, we only made it through one round of drinks because service was slow. One waitress and one bartender on a Thursday night might be a little too lean staffing-wise.
A menu of small plates is on the pricey side. Two tiny BLTs built on bao buns with lettuce, tomato, lamb bacon, and a small slab of gyro meat were $12. And if your Chicago-bred Polish grandma got drunk, she might have come up with the Italian beef dumplings—pierogies stuffed with beef and served "wet," submerged in the herby beef juice—but she wouldn't have charged $9 for two of them. Both dishes feel like attempts to fancy up inexpensive street foods, but in both cases it just feels like you're spending twice the money to get half the food (like, the exact same food—the menu says they get their Italian beef from Fontano's). I'd be lying if I said those dumplings weren't delicious, though.
Gallery Bar, 738 N. Clark, 312-929-2658, gallerybarchicago.com and Fame, 2015 W. Division, 773-227-1110, chicagofame.com.