Despite its recent enthusiasm for beckoning cool restaurateurs to Hyde Park, the University of Chicago didn't always want to be part of the city surrounding it. Beginning in the 50s, the university adopted urban renewal initiatives meant to control what it viewed as encroaching blight—and in the process destroyed commercial districts, sent thousands of poor African-Americans packing, and turned the neighborhood into a grim fortress.
One of the many consequences of this has been that for decades Hyde Parkers of all stripes bemoaned the scarcity of good restaurants. So I suppose it's good karma that the recent arrivals of Matthias Merges's A10 (and soon Yusho II) and now the Promontory, from the Longman & Eagle folks, are attracting some of the most racially diverse groups of diners in the city.
Oddly the Promontory, positioned between a clothing store and a gated parking lot in the heavily chained Harper Court development, feels like it's been dropped into the middle of an affluent suburb—light-years and just about a half mile away from the beloved lakefront peninsula it's named for. The rampant strings of Edison bulbs hanging from the high ceiling in this former Borders bookstore don't help much either, but the space, which includes a second-floor music venue and a prominently placed wraparound bar, is wide open, with great sight lines, and is not an unpleasant place to endure the stuttered pacing of dishes while you watch wide-eyed Hyde Parkers marvel at their good fortune.
The philosophical and culinary heart of the place—a blazing bonfire in the open kitchen—leads to some of the more tortured menu categories and descriptions in the city. "Hearth-charred," "-roasted," "-blistered," "-seared," "-grilled," and "-baked" foods appear all over a document divided into "cold," "fast," "embers," "historic," and "snacks." If you can't sympathize with the weary resignation of servers who have to explain the more esoteric headings then perhaps you're better off at Fung's Chop Suey on 47th.
Yes, they sure are proud of their fireplace at the Promontory, which is used to variously sear strip loin and ahi tuna ("fast"), slow-roast lamb and pork ribs ("embers"), char the vegetables employed in reimagined classic dishes ("historic"), and even to somehow char vermouth used in a "hearth Manhattan"—an egregious interpretation that tastes like a shot of Fireball.
It's tempting to try to draw a stylistic line from the originally unpretentious and solid carnephilia of Longman & Eagle to the more fussily plated and playful presentations of Dusek's, but it's really only safe to say that chef Jared Wentworth is straddling a very wide divide between the two. This results in odd dishes like a panzanella salad with charred tomatoes, lettuce, and cold, dry corn bread, or white anchovies draped over pickled vegetables with a gooey but frigid boiled egg, or a lovely looking lobster salad with pickled radish shavings, pea shoots, and nasturtium leaves that won't distract from the gummy shellfish—a condition that results when the creature lies undissected for too long after death.
Certain dishes indicate that the hearth isn't seeing as much action as it should. On one visit a perfect orb of spaghetti in red sauce concealed a number of irregularly shaped cold veal meatballs, heavy on filler. On another, pork ribs with some strange partners—shrimp and a vivid green crepe filled with eggplant puree—nearly fell off the bone when you looked at them, yielding mushy meat that tasted like it'd been boiled or steamed before it met any fire.
Misfires aren't uncommon in busy new restaurants, but conceptually the Promontory features a number of retooled takes on classic dishes that are fundamentally ill-advised. Navarin, which is typically a hearty lamb and vegetable stew, arrives on a plate more or less dry, a composed study of various ruminant parts: leg, shoulder, and sweetbreads, each piece assigned to specific vegetables and drizzled with a thick brown sauce. Coq au vin isn't safe from a similar treatment: roulades of poultry are arrayed atop baby root vegetables, with a superfluous lump of minced bacon and mushrooms to the side, all dry again but for a few gouts of cloying brown sauce. At least the duplicity of the veal "osso bucco" is acknowledged in quotes. Here it's slices of loin—rather than tougher, fattier shanks—accompanied by a marrow bone and a few arancini studded with a bit of fragrant black truffle. Set on a tart understory of chopped asparagus, it's the one "historic" offering that works, even as it echoes the beef strip loin from another part of the menu, with sweet corn and a large raviolo bursting with liquid bone marrow. They're two successful dishes despite the repeated template of meat + brown sauce.
Burgoo, as history has it, is a game stew so thick the spoon should stand up in the pot, but the Promontory's, which includes quail, rabbit sausage, and pork collar, is built on a thin tomatoey broth no Kentucky settler could survive on. Similarly, I don't know how Escoffier would handle a server informing him that his classic filets de sole Véronique was traditionally served with toast, but the Promontory's take on it features a piece of fluke topped with a blob of acrid foam, resting in what the menu describes as toast puree. Actually, between the candy-sweet pickled fennel and poached grapes it's the tastiest thing about this dish—all butter, heavy cream, and salt. What's not to like?
There are good things to be found on the menu, and generally they're simple dishes not trying so hard to be cute (or to outright reject history). Korean-style grilled short ribs make a nice, gnarly snack, served with seared shishito peppers in a sweet marinade. A trio of spreads, each paired with complementary garnishes—truffled white bean with chanterelles, green chickpea hummus with buttery pine nuts, black olive tapenade with grilled eggplant—makes for great snacking, as does a simple plate of olives with a slab of gooey charred feta, notwithstanding an unfortunate baguette so stale someone must have walked it down to Hyde Park from the North Shore.
Dessert restylizes classics more successfully. Among the s'more souffle and banana pudding there's a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich—chocolate between light pistachio cake soaking in Amarena cherry puree—that's worth trying, and a riff on baked Alaska, with hazelnut praline ice cream, espresso meringue, and bourbon jelly, that makes a fine finish.
Finally, allow me to introduce you to an old man I live with: I'd like to tell you about the Promontory's extensive wine list, but the font is so small and so faint I couldn't even read it by the light of the hearth. I'm sure it's a list as ambitious as the Promontory itself is. As starved as Hyde Parkers are for good restaurants, I'm sure they'll continue to fill it. But that doesn't change the unfortunate reality that it falls far short of what they deserve.