Something about the cold, steel environs of Streeterville's Loews Chicago Hotel makes the experience of entering its restaurant, Rural Society, a surprise to the senses. You particularly notice the aromas: campfire, leather, tobacco. And, of course, meat—this is the new Argentinian steak house from Jose Garces, the Chicago-raised chef who left to build an empire in Philadelphia and beyond. Counting a Philly taco truck, Rural Society is the 19th restaurant in his stable, and his second on the home front since Mercat a la Planxa, which opened in 2008.
In fact, this is the second Rural Society, after the Washington, D.C., original. Both are inspired by the annual La Exposición Rural, a sort of state fair and livestock exposition in Buenos Aires—but one where everybody gets to eat grass-fed steaks instead of corn dogs. The main dining room in the Chicago restaurant resembles an outdoor tent, decorated with the trophies of prizewinning bovines whose great reward, you can imagine, is the privilege of appearing on your plate, medium rare.
But the real showstopper is the wood-burning parrilla, three grills flanked by towers of oak and hickory splits. It isn't just raw beef that's transformed over this crucible. Garces's chef de cuisine Cory Morris puts the grills to work on everything from vegetables to seafood, sausages to sweetbreads. This is not a formulaic steak house. His style is marked by judicious seasoning, authentic ingredients, and precise presentation. This is most evident in small plates of vegetables, potatoes, and charcuterie, such as an alluring plate of thinly sliced braised octopus delicate as sashimi, garnished with dollops of vinegary tomato escabeche and potato chips that are soaked in Malbec before going into the fryer; or similarly fragile sections of pickled and smoked veal tongue dressed with grape mustard and a tart pomegranate sauce. Even an arrangement of simple roasted peppers with anchovies is taken to another level with doses of airy, almost cheeselike whipped eggplant. Potatoes come five ways, including Hasselback style (called papas nury on this menu), where they're served with truffled hollandaise. They look like trilobites, their ridged surfaces allowing the spud to crisp up internally. Their polar opposite is the ultracheesy "crema" potatoes, whipped to an elastic composition with garlic and mozzarella curds.
Morris does wonders with vegetables. Roasting intensifies the sweetness of carrots glazed with cider, seasoned with caraway, and finished with pillows of soft goat cheese. Even ordinarily boring roasted beets come alive with an orange vinaigrette, whole coriander, and charred bits of olive. Huge vinegary grilled mushrooms rival the steaks for the meatiest things on the menu.
But they can't touch the morcilla—perhaps the richest, most potent blood sausage I've ever encountered. It contains no rice but raisins, pine nuts, and such measures of clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and orange that it could be served as a Christmas dessert. At my table we tempered its intensity by spooling it up with saffroned pasta tossed with cockles, rock shrimp, and bottarga. Beef-and-pork chorizo and Proveleta-stuffed pork sausage don't nearly approach the depth of flavor of the morcilla, but the asado mixto, an assortment of the three plus some sweetbreads, provides an inexpensive way to satisfy a hankering for flesh—relative to some of the pricier steaks, anyhow, which top out at $55.
To that end, the parrilla delivers a half-dozen cuts, among them lean and clean-tasting Uruguayan grass-fed rib eye and tenderloin. The fire sears a crusty bark on these meats, and they're served simply, with just a pile of sea salt. I would have preferred a little more of the fat cap left on the picanha, aka the rump cap, but it's a fantastic cut.
But I could return to Rural Society and happily forgo the steak—as long as the meal began with the bread service, featuring focaccia, semolina sesame rolls, and the crusty, cheesy gougerelike buns known as chipas, served with two salsas, chimichurri, and a Malbec compound butter. Desserts, including a chocolate wafer cake and crepes, aren't quite as thrilling on paper, but a dulce de leche flan (paired unsuccessfully with a mango sorbet) is so rich it resembles the caramelized Scandinavian goat cheese brunost.
The best way to experience the terrific range of this menu, however, is to go for one of two tastings, the more expensive version of which ($95) features an assortment of some nine dishes with an optional pairing of South American wines ($35 or $50).
Every time a new steak house opens downtown, I slap my forehead. But Rural Society differs from the typical expense-account feedlot. The herds of conventioneers might need a little coaxing, but for the rest of us it's worth the price. And it proves for the second time that Garces isn't some out-of-touch carpetbagger, but a chef who really know what the city needs. v