Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

The Lunatic, the Lover & the Poet invokes poetry in lieu of personality

Sommelier Tom Powers’s new Randolph Street spot treats wine properly. Chef Jessica Nowicki’s food? Not so much.

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In the event that you've forgotten tenth-grade English, "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet" is a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play by a certain William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him? It's also the name of a new wine bar wedged into an increasingly restaurant-gunged Randolph Street. It's a name so annoying I had to step away from the keyboard and command my dog to type it. Iambic pentameter should be left to trained professionals.

Like the trained pros who designed LLP, a multilevel operation whose long, narrow first-floor bar and dining room is a mirror image of its next-door neighbor, Ronero. It's furnished with the four Bs of basic restaurant design: exposed brick, wooden beams, empty birdcages, and hollow books in which your check is delivered. There's track lighting in lieu of Edison bulbs, at least. Pithy literary and pop culture quotes are illuminated along the staircase to the restrooms for your amusement while you perform your ablutions.

LLP's prime directive is to serve as a wine bar, and featured glasses are listed on a conventional one-page menu. The rest is contained in the depths of an iPad, which at the end of a long day navigating the labyrinths of illuminated screens is not a liberating tool for attempting to find the right bottle. On the other hand, LLP is owned and operated by its sommelier, Tom Powers, a survivor of the Jerry Kleiner empire (Marché, Red Light), and once a bottle is chosen, it's treated properly. Even a humble gamay, at $55 on the low end of a pricey list, was nonetheless decanted, lightly chilled, and poured as if it were a rare treasure.

Cocktails feature a few watery potions containing ghosts of their feature spirits: the Law & Order, bourbon and absinthe fading amid an avalanche of crushed ice, for instance, or the Bushido, light-bodied Japanese whiskey overwhelmed by sour spherified yuzu bombs. Spirits-wise there isn't a single reasonably priced calvados, eau de vie, or cognac on the list. A single pour of green Chartreuse costs $20.

So what to eat with all that juice? The menu from chef Jessica Nowicki—a veteran of Naha, Brindille, and Oak Mill Bakery—is familiarly broad and unfocused, offering wide-ranging approaches in small, medium, and large formats. My most memorable bite was from a bowl of charred onion soup, initially presented empty but for a schmear of tangy quark cheese, over which is poured a thick veloute, industrial mustard in appearance, but a rich and toasty environment for the cheese. A moist corvina fillet came in a close second, set atop buttery carrot puree and served with sweet roasted fennel, topped with a cloud of the same, only shaved and fresh.

From there, leaden gnocchi dominate a bowl that would've fared better if the sauteed wild mushrooms and marcona almonds the dumplings were tossed with had been left alone. A cylinder of steak tartare is untouched by salt, caper, or egg yolk, instead topped with an icing of sauce gribiche and served with crisps and endive. All the sodium that dish deserves might have been absorbed into the eye-tighteningly salty batter of the fried pickles, Meyer lemon coins, and smelts served with their spines removed. Rosettes of La Quercia prosciutto bloom atop rubbery scallops. The obligatory burger is made up of two thin, commendably smashed-and-griddled patties that squirt from their bun, having been lubricated by cheddar and aioli-slicked lettuce. In the most egregious false spring I've encountered, crispy pork "carnitas" are accompanied by a "ramp slaw" consisting of a single disarticulated allium stretched thin over a pile of common red cabbage.

Given Nowicki's time at Oak Mill Bakery, LLP takes a somewhat ironic stand by not serving dessert. Instead there are cheese boards, limited to five midwestern varieties. The conviction is admirably French, but after all that I could've gone for a nice, simple pot de creme.

The Lunatic, the Lover & the Poet filled one of the few remaining nonrestaurant storefronts along Randolph—that thoroughfare of Chicago entrepreneurial confidence and symbol of creeping American decadence. Behind its poetic name, it's yet another shared-plates concept without much original identity.   v

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