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Restaurant Tours; from billiards to bouillabaisse

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"It's a pretty natural transition to go from running pool halls to fancy supper clubs, isn't it?" asks Steve Soble, his cherubic face betraying no trace of a grin. "As you get older you always want to do the things that appeal to you. You're not hanging out in a tavern or a pool hall anymore--you're going out to dinner. So..."

Thus he begins to explain how he and partner Howard Natinsky expanded their successful string of yupscale pool halls and bowling alleys to include what has quickly become the city's most chic watering hole and dining room, the Hudson Club.

Eight years ago Soble and Natinsky blew off their respective corporate gigs in marketing and commercial real estate to open up the Corner Pocket in Lincoln Park, where patrons can hustle a friendly game of eight-ball while indulging in such haute cuisine as cheddar fries or chicken quesadillas.

"I always liked Chicago taverns," says the 32-year-old, Virginia-born Soble. "We didn't have taverns back home. And I didn't want to keep doing the corporate thing. So we opened our own kind of tavern and the thing worked."

It worked so well they went on to take over Lakeview's classic Southport Lanes & Billiards emporium, then open the Lucky Strike and the Sidelines Grill, both in Lincoln Park, all the while serving up chili, turkey Reubens, and a healthy range of beers and ales to fuel the bowlers and pool sharks. Less than a year ago, they decided to make the move to River North and took over the site of the Improv comedy club, now in the heart of a new restaurant row, for their most recent endeavor.

The Hudson Club is a place where ripped Levis stand side by side with perfectly pressed Armanis; where you can choose from 20 beers on tap plus 40-something more by the bottle, or order from more than a hundred wines--ranging from routine merlots at $5.50 a pop to a 1988 Chateau Certan de May Pomerol at $30 per glass--all kept pure and unoxidized at the perfect temperature by an enormous series of Wine Keeper units.

Nevertheless, Soble insists his outlook hasn't changed. "I'm not a wine-o-phile or a food geek," he says. "I'm not about to open Brasserie Steve. But I wanted to do something different. You've got to be able to stand out. I knew it wasn't really a normal transition, but it would be a lot of fun."

The club features a fantasy-40s nightclub look created by restaurant designer Jordan Mozer, whose stuff ranges from brilliant to bizarre. He's the guy who ravaged the clean lines of the Hancock Center with that creepy canopy and entrance to the Cheesecake Factory. But this place is a sweeping, two-level masterpiece of brushed aluminum, polished mahogany, and burgundy velvet in soaring, swooping shapes that marry Art Deco to aerospace. The arched, Quonset-hut ceiling of the Improv is brought closer to earth with 18 comical, hornetlike lighting fixtures, said to be derived from the headlamps of the old Hudson Hornet automobile--from which the club gets its name.

"We really had to restrain Jordan," says Soble. "A lot of the limits were because of the budget--but you should have seen the original design!"

Then came the chore of picking a chef. Partner Larry Dwyer, who also manages the restaurant, ate himself silly with the offerings of some 30 applicants, who were winnowed down to five. Then Soble, Natinsky, their wives, and other investors began their own eat-a-thon.

"Chefs have egos. We don't," Soble says. "So two of the guys gave us what they wanted to give us--not what we asked for. Another was just not very good." It got down to Geoff Felsenthal, who opened Bella Vista, and Paul Larson, former chef of the Winnetka Grill--a landmark of fine contemporary suburban dining during its all-too-brief decade of life. Citing a "gut feeling," they decided on Larson.

Soble calls the menu "chef-driven." Larson calls it "globally inspired but with midwest ingredients." He'll range from exotic--topping tuna carpaccio with a tangy Japanese seaweed salad--to down-home, crusting his fried shrimp with crushed cornflakes.

During a recent visit, I roamed far and wide through the menu, finding a bit of happiness with almost every bite. An appetizer of assorted spring rolls ($5.95) included some with crunchy veggies and rice noodles, some with lamb and onions, and some with smoked salmon, watercress, and lemongrass. But the killer smoked-salmon dish was one layering the fish into a multitiered cake with crispy flatbread, creme fraiche, and various caviars ($7.95). Duck liver pate was thick and unctuous, nicely pointed with a port wine sauce and tart cornichons ($6.95). Only the quilicene oysters disappointed, emerging flat and quite tasteless from the half shells, unrescued by the great mignonette sauce ($8.95).

The thick, soft-crusted pizza topped with plenty of flavorful rock shrimp, cilantro pesto, and lots of rich, oozy provolone cheese is listed as an appetizer ($7.95), but it easily would have done that job for three or four diners.

The ahi tuna entree was perfectly seared to a crust on the outside and blood-rare inside, looking for all the world like an exquisite tenderloin and tasting very sushilike with ponzu dipping sauce, sticky rice, and Asian-style salad ($18.95). The generous pork tenderloin ($16.95) was both tender and flavorful from being marinated in a very mild jerk seasoning--so mild you wonder why they call it jerk. Mashed yams flavored with ginger accompany, for a subtle sweet-hot taste mix.

My bouillabaisse ($19.95) had a zesty, lightly thickened broth as a foil for the mix of clams, mussels, shrimp, and finfish chunks--one of the most savory renditions in town. It was a true classic, as was the excellent rack of lamb, done precisely rare as ordered, with the traditional Provencal pairing of fava beans ($24.95). A simple, garlic-infused jus seasoned the lamb and its accompanying couscous nicely.

Creme brulee for dessert was about as smooth and sweet as it gets ($6), and even the sorbets ($5) had the richness of ice cream instead of the tickle of ice.

All in all, these pool-hall fugitives rack up an interesting table.

The Hudson Club, 504 N. Wells, is open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 PM, Friday and Saturday to 11 PM. The bar opens at 3 PM. Call 312-467-1947.

--Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Larry Dwyer, Paul Larson, Howard Natinsky/ architectural photos by J.B. Spector.

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