Sooo, it's been a long, hard week, and you want to go out and be treated like a dead movie star.
That's the kind of check they're looking for at Blvd—the Restaurant That Said No to Vowels—which is parked in the shell of a long-gone nightclub in Chicago's most restaurant-dense neighborhood. Very soon you won't even be allowed in the area unless you have a dinner reservation, as Chicago's restaurant bubble wafts wobbly over the bright lights of the West Loop and Fulton Market District.
Blvd is dressed up to be the kind of restaurant where Marilyn Monroe and James Dean would hang out, with the aim of becoming a place where you want to hang out as well. Inside, chandeliers drip over jumbo circular booths. Women in short dresses climb the carpeted spiral staircase to take selfies in the ladies' room, across an atrium from an ambitious overflow floor with a separate bar and dining room. It's the Champagne Room, you're told. Balcony tables overlook the civilized debauchery below, and the soundtrack is a mix of the usual anodyne electropop wallpaper and Rat Pack dance remixes, the latter a diabolical genre designed to drive you out of your mind.
This fantasy was selling pretty well at Blvd last month, when tables even a few days out were hard to come by if you hadn't planned further ahead or called in a favor. And yet restaurants have a responsibility to meet certain realities. Number one is to hire a talented chef—otherwise people will forget about it in two months and a restaurant like Blvd will go the way of Chromium, the club that existed here ten years ago and haunted the building so hard that no one wanted to move in until all the other former industrial spaces had been claimed.
The chef initially was Ross Mendoza, who came from Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant group, most recently at the late Pump Room, the storied boite in the former Ambassador East—a place that in its prime was somewhere that movie stars and aging idols actually would hang out. Maybe Mendoza picked up some of that long-gone mojo. Who can say, as he departed the project in its early days? His chef de cuisine, Johnny Besch (Bistro Bordeaux, L2O), stepped up, updating and adding to the menu, which on its face looks like a dozen others in the West Loop and River North. You have your seafood tower and caviar service. You have your avocado toast because, while that may not have been a thing 65 years ago, it is a thing now. You have your shishito peppers, because people still like to eat with their paws. There are roasted carrots, naturally. Whole roasted fish, oysters, and a 22-ounce rib eye for two or four or, if you're the Big Man, one. And of course—everybody say it with me now—there's a burger.
Besch has a lot of bases covered there. But the challenge for some chefs is to rise above the cliches they're dealt. Fairly often he does. Steak tartare bonded with bone marrow butter and served on a toasted sourdough "shingle" (what all the young whippersnappers call "toast" these days) is a cannibal's delight. Light, airy brandade croquettes take a dip in umami-swollen, seaweed-infused remoulade. Chubby pink slices of hamachi appear en crudo, with an admirably restrained application of salted plum sauce countered nicely by a plum salt finish.
Most of the dishes are assigned to absurd menu categorizations like "Divide and Conquer" (meat to be shared) and "Flying Solo (or not)," which tries to have it both ways. Cacio e pepe sits between two other pastas, a formidable mound of soft, springy chitarra so thoroughly tossed with Parmigiano and crushed black pepper that it crunches; a simultaneously confounding and satisfying exception to the rule that al dente is always right. Octopus, charred and smoky, sits atop a bed of smooth hummus, blackened with squid ink and black sesame paste, the two almost indistinguishable from each other but for the thinly shaved root vegetables—fresh and pickled carrots, kohlrabi, fennel, and watermelon radish—that lie between them. Jiggly scallops, unharmed by whoever applied their thin, seared crust, perch atop a tiny mount of corn souffle and sweet red onion bacon jam. Those roasted carrots are treated with carrot-top pesto and coriander-scented yogurt.
Shrimp cocktail is something radical altogether. Fat, pink crustaceans stand in a sharp tomato gastrique and tingling horseradish panna cotta that together sub for cocktail sauce, alongside lemon confit and a dehydrated lemon garnish. I'm confident I'll be thinking about this exquisite audacity if I'm ever exiled to the desert.
A few seasonal dishes will be short-lived, some deservedly. Sweet king and Dungeness crab fight strewn among starchy sweet corn whose time has come and gone.
The burger you've met dozens of times before: a thin double-pattied diner style, cooked well beyond pink but buried under so much cheese and sickly-sweet pickles you likely won't notice. A "minute steak"—what the devious menu writer meant by hanger steak—is gristly and a chore to eat, even among roasted baby potatoes, chimichurri, and blackened green onions.
The dessert menu is distinguished by a chocolate-covered candy bar, in an execution that echoes the foie gras candy bar at Roister but makes its own statement with crunchy chewy nougat, chocolate ganache, honey-walnut caramel with a touch of cayenne, and a side of buttermilk sorbet. A chocolate cake covered in thick peanut butter frosting and Reese's peanut butter cup shrapnel is large enough for its own zip code and comes with a pair of mini milk bottles. Restaurants that don't reflexively serve cold milk with chocolate cake are doing it wrong.
Somehow I'm not surprised that vodka dominates the cocktail list, but more interesting options are available. The vegetal funk of the sotol-based Treat Me Nice plays well with passion fruit and lime, while the Burnout, with chile-infused tequila, poblano chile liqueur, and habanero bitters, isn't the Sammy Hagar–endorsed emetic you might imagine. Wines on the fine-print bottle list, and the more navigable by-the-glass list are categorized by titles such as "The Only Thing Better Than Butter" and "Tall, Dark, and Handsome," which I imagine makes the sommelier feel like a babysitter at story time.
OK, who wouldn't want to travel back to halcyon 1950s Hollywood, when nuclear annihilation was slightly less likely than it is now? It's hard to fault the escapist intentions of Blvd, though sometimes it feels more like the sort of place a young lady might take her American Girl Doll for champers when it turns 21. As for you fellas, you'll have to decide whether you're going to wear the pork pie or the fedora. But it does have one crucial element necessary for longevity. If you can stomach the particular artifice that veils this place, you'll find more than a few things to like on Besch's menu. v