"Chance is going to be with you tonight," said the hostess as she guided us to the wide-open front windows of the large and largely empty Refinery. Er, at least that's what I thought she said, and her words stayed with me until the end of the meal, when I saw the check and realized that the word "chance" sounded almost identical to the name of our server, who was as polished and dependable as the food she brought was a crapshoot.
The story at the Refinery is that the menu is made up of a bunch of dishes you've seen innumerable times in the last decade if you've eaten out with any frequency. But these have been somehow been "refined" by Lawrence Letrero, whose work you probably missed at the very short-lived Tribute (after Brandon Baltzley famously flamed out), and which you might have had a taste of when he served as sous chef at the so-called "speakeasy" Untitled.
The restaurant, open since early July, has so far failed to post its menu online, almost as if there's an awareness of how uninspired this collection of dishes might appear at first glance—poutine, burgers, scallops and braised oxtails, grilled octopus and potato, duck liver mousse, pork rinds, deviled eggs, shishito peppers, oysters—with little indication of what makes them special.
So, say that poutine—a pervasive and routinely awful cliche that should never be consumed before midnight, if at all—is here positioned as a starter of crispy fries washed in a duck confit gravy that barely softens the cheese curds into congealed lumps. Gee, never saw that before. At $10 it sits on the menu next to a market-price crudo—in my case, four bites of room-temperature fluke preciously arranged on an oversize plate, garnished with tiny green leaves and deseeded chile rounds—for which I was charged $18.
This polarity of tired pub grub vs. fussily plated, overpriced fine dining dishes exists across the menu. It's an indication of a restaurant that has no idea what it aims to be or what people want. It's possible to start your meal with a trio of "crab Rangoon arancini," deep-fried rice dumplings containing a molten core of liquid crab dip and garnished with a pile of lettuce, and continue it with rubbery lengths of unchewable octopus tentacles twisting atop a thick smear of gluey pureed sweet potato.
Some of these dishes are indeed refined in the sense that their deviations from standard practice seem to exist only to call attention to themselves. Thin sheets of beef carpaccio are sprinkled with hard, whole cubes of Manchego cheese (rather than the usual thin shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano) in a way that's not only difficult to eat but at total odds with the harmonious nature of the original concept. This is difference for its own sake rather than through any outburst of inspiration. Other refinements are just simply baffling. A dish of duck liver mousse is emulsified to the point of liquefaction. Isn't there an injunction against dripping organs?
The Refinery boasts that it grinds its burger from short rib meat, which isn't particularly uncommon in this age of $17 burgers. However, its lamb burger—featuring a slab of melted kasseri cheese and a piquant, harissa-spiced yogurt that seeps into the thick brioche bun—would be significant if the bread weren't so out of proportion to its contents.
At the Refinery they roast a chicken and then fry it, which causes it to rebel by giving up all its moisture. This is a sad situation that also afflicts a length of pork belly, prettily adorned with yellow cherry tomatoes, fried okra, and cubes of desiccated corn bread anchored on a slick of creamed corn. Here scallops and braised, shredded oxtail—the poster child for facetious surf and turf over the last decade—are faintly fishy and gussied up with shredded carrot and papaya that are half submerged in a puddle of watery polenta. About the only satisfying dish I encountered over my visits was a "crispy duck breast"—not crispy in any way but juicy and rare and situated among sculpted carrots and pearl onions, and cubes of stuffing. It was culinary-school simple, hardly refined, and a testament to not messing with a good thing.
The only aspect of the Refinery that rises to the pretension of its stated mission is the work of pastry chef Hetty Arts, a veteran of the Four Seasons here and Eleven Madison Park in New York, who offers a quartet of artfully plated desserts, in particular an oblong "chocolate pretzel bar," rich and minimally accented with smears of caramel and a scoop of pretzel-flavored ice cream. Cody Modeer, who's doing God's work in Evanston at Ward Eight, brought in the cocktails—light, refreshing, and inoffensive unless you're considering their $12 to $14 price tag.
In its casual, bricked-up atmosphere, soundtracked by overplayed classic-rock dinosaurs, the Refinery incorporates some (mostly cosmetic) upscale service touches, starting with a pair of dry gougeres that appear at the start of every meal. But other bush-league practices, such as allowing servers to attempt the old bait and switch by offering $8 sparkling or still designer water without mentioning the possibility of tap, won't engender any goodwill toward this shaky endeavor. The high prices don't remotely justify the ill-conceived and poorly executed results.