The principals behind this latest inexplicably overcrowded River North barstaurant claim some sort of inspiration from the life and travels of Ernest Hemingway. Yet literary scholars will be hard-pressed to find any clear connection to the work of the great writer—runners are clad in mock-tuxedo T-shirts paraphrasing Talladega Nights ("We're formal but we like to party").
It's ironic that the waits are so long in this lavish if irreverent double-decker design (ceramic-tiled floors, shelves of vintage books, and framed portraits of chimps in human clothes)—the dining areas are filled with high-tops and wide communal tables, seemingly designed to encourage quick turnover. And the shared plates, from chef Bob Zrenner (ex 33 Club, Branch 27, Graze), are almost afterthoughts to the bar's sweet daiquiri, citrusy Southside, and absinthe-laced Death in the Afternoon—not to mention a full whiskey list.
But Zrenner's menu has very little you wouldn't have seen on dozens of others around town over the last five years, including deviled eggs, roasted marrow bones, goat cheese-beet salad, bacon-wrapped dates, oysters, charcuterie, and frites with aioli. For dessert: that greatest hit of the 90s, flourless chocolate cake.
Among the "bar snacks," french fries—a sure sign of a kitchen's consistency and commitment to fundamentals—may arrive thin, overfried, and dry or soft and pale, while the pickled vegetables—radishes, cauliflower, and carrots—carry no character other than that of the sweet vinegar tang of their brine. The underbaked crusts on the thin "flatbreads" (just say pizza, for Papa's sake)—whether an ambitious sweet merguez-blue cheese with pear chutney or a simple margherita with rubbery, barely melted mozzarella—recall specimens native to public-school cafeterias everywhere. Even a compelling-sounding chorizo brandade turned out to be a codless, vaguely meaty, and unattractive potted blend of potato and sausage (we had to ask what it was).
And then the "small plates," not much differently sized than the snacks: an almost willfully unseasoned steak tartare, spongy panfried sweetbreads with all the texture of scrambled eggs, a one-note spicy crock of Moroccan vegetables accompanied by a crostini with a plank of sheep's-milk feta. Geometrically perfect squares of braised short rib with radish salad are topped with small, cold, congealed bits of bone marrow showing overreaching out of step with the simple pair of
braised grilled chicken thighs that was perhaps the best thing we tried. A section of sandwiches, including a perfectly basic, unmemorable burger, is just more fodder to keep the drinkers' stomachs absorbent.
I can't imagine how Hemingway would feel about his alleged influence on this place, and I don't know enough about his eating habits to say whether he'd be impressed. But I can see how the combination of relatively reasonably priced and decent classic cocktails ($10) and a poorly managed reservation system that results in interminable scrumming at the crowded bar would encourage alcoholism and thoughts of suicide in anyone with a sensitive nature.