If there's one place in town where it might be safe to choke on a chicken oyster it ought to be GreenRiver. That's on the 18th floor of Northwestern Medicine's Lavin Family Pavilion on the Gold Coast. And as you pass the hand sanitizer on your way to the elevator and up past the sterilized habitats of phlebotomists and electrocardiogram techs, radiologists, and ultrasound specialists, you'll probably wonder what in the name of General Hospital was New York restaurateur Danny Meyer thinking by positioning his first midwestern upscale barstaurant—a collaboration with the fellows behind NYC's celebrated cocktail bar Dead Rabbit—high up in a medical center. But then you'll step into the hallway midway through a Curtis Mayfield track, and a hostess will guide you around the corner into the bar, which is fairly bustling—not with beardos and manbuns—but lanky, sleep-deprived residents and jowly MDs, some of them kicking back with their coupes and highball glasses in loose blue scrubs. There's a captive market here.
It's not the only seemingly incongruous element to this aerie. Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group includes some 13 New York restaurants known for obsessive customer service, and his partners Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, a pair of Belfasters who upended the idea of what an Irish pub should be, have created, in a sense, an Irish bar high above the Gold Coast. At least in spirit.
Some of the Dead Rabbit aesthetic—conceptually only—is reflected in the cocktails, overseen by former Aviary head bartender Julia Momose. Belly up and you'll be presented with a heavy tome, divided into eight base spirit categories (rye, barley, agave, juniper, etc) featuring four cocktails each, $13 on the low end, $19 at the skyscraping top. Each cocktail is named for some aspect of or character in Chicago Irish-American history. There are liner notes. Guests who ponder the Hinky Dink, a concoction of Polish rye vodka, beer, pistachio, horseradish, chipotle, and lemon, will be treated to a short biography of the cocktail's namesake, notoriously corrupt turn-of-the-century alderman Michael Kenna, while the Teddy Bear (Irish whiskey, Pimm's, fig, lemon, honey, dandelion, and burdock bitters) refers to gambling nogoodnik "Hot Stove" Jimmy Quinn, and the Meat Packer, a surprisingly restrained but potent mix of genever and St.-Germain, is named for stockyard union leader John Fitzpatrick.
Cocktails can seem more appealing when garnished with a story, and yet it's a lot of information to take in, particularly since these are extraordinarily complicated cocktails with occasionally inscrutable descriptions that require the attentions of a bartender to illuminate them. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, if you can command one's attention, but GreenRiver is a busy bar. I was surprised and relieved to learn that the grape fungus botrytis that rounded off the pleasing bitterness in the tequila, genever, and Campari Gangster's Paradise referred not to the actual "noble rot," but to sauternes, the miracle sweet wine that results from it. And the "curry" in the Cullerton Street (Japanese whiskey, the aperitif Pineau des Charentes, barley, verjus blanc, and the Japanese pickle fukujinzuke) referred to the caraway liqueur Kümmel.
You'll find a lot of culinary elements in these cocktails. Mascarpone cheese is blended into the MacSwiney, rounding off cognac and Crème de Noyaux for a Creamsicle finish on a White Russian-like drink. Kaffir lime leaf finds its way into the Haley's Comet, adding an intense herbal note to an otherwise sweet spritz of gin, gentian, and passion fruit. Flavors of ginger, lemon, carrot, and cashew spice up the well-balanced Steamboat Cochrane, composed of Irish whiskey and Armagnac.
As if that weren't enough to dither over, there's a selection of $11 highballs that carry on the culinary theme—syrupy green cardamom soda with aged tequila or tart Japanese plum vinegar soda with floral white vermouth.
The cocktails I tried were as good as any you'll find in the city's better bars, though I'm not sure if these culinarily finessed drinks harmonize in any meaningful way with the food, which also happens to be very good. Servers are trained to pair some drinks with dishes, but that's not the main mission here—and I'm not sure what is. The cuisine is certainly not drinking food in any classical sense. What it is is very well-executed but unsurprising new-American food. Chef Aaron Lirette (Celeste, MK, Acadia) throws no bombs; there's nothing outre or odd to correspond with the cocktails. There are oysters, a burger, roast chicken, steak for two—just the sort of familiar comforts you might need coming off a double shift in the ER.
But in fact the only dish with any real proletarian balls is a pile of chicken oysters. You know those coveted morsels of dark meat nestled in the hollows of the bird's back? The best part of the chicken? Here they're breaded and fried hard, piled atop a thick smear of pickled Fresno chile puree—like a luxe buffalo sauce—and topped with a thatch of raw black radish matchsticks. Servers seem instructed to take a "too spicy?" census with this dish, but that's real drinking food.
Actually, you can see this menu appealing to the more stereotypical Gold Coast demographic. You have relatively refined, almost dainty snacks, like some smoked whitefish spread on grilled bread garnished with hard-boiled egg, radish slices, and celery shaved so thin you can read the menu through it, or a familiar classically executed pork terrine with cornichons, mustard, and fries. There's a vivid carrot soup, a silky emulsion providing one of the best spoonfuls on the menu, boosted with drizzles of aged balsamic vinegar and balanced by creamy creme fraiche. Tender coils of octopus entangle orange slices and crunchy chickpeas above a bed of romesco, while unusually firm burrata stands up to a nutty farro salad with grapes and almonds.
Among Lirette's piscine hits is a tongue of fresh sea urchin gonad resting atop brilliant orange tangles of spaghetti dressed in an uni-tomato saffron sauce and flanked by sunny cherry tomatoes. The jiggly richness of seared diver scallops is countered by hazelnut crunch and celery root puree, while thin halibut fillets wade in a soupy sea-bean ragout with baby kale and turnip.
About the only executional error I encountered during my visits at GreenRiver was a Grimace-colored red-wine risotto that was far too salty to finish.
Dessert seems undersold, as if the doctors would disapprove, with just three off-menu choices that may or may not be voluntarily offered. A fluffy square of coconut cheesecake, finished with a money shot of rum-spiked caramel, came with a shockingly tart lime sorbet to the side that will slap you out of your dissipated stupor.
An exterior terrace wraps around the corner of the dining room, offering commanding views of the nearby skyline, while a row of high-tops dominates the interior between the bar and the open kitchen. It's a warm, comfortable environment where perhaps Meyer means to welcome more than just the hospital staff. GreenRiver might not be easy to get to for much of the city, but I could see it being an easy hang for a certain species of Gold Coaster—kind of a Monk's Cafe for Montgomery Burns. There's no safer bar for a centenarian. v