The press release heralding the opening of the Shark Bar, apparently written by some white-bread tyro who's never dined south of Chinatown, begins, "Soul food and southern hospitality have found their way to the City of Big Shoulders." Really. Tell that to Leon or Gladys or Army and Lou--some of the classic soul restaurateurs who have been feeding Chicago for most of the century. Fortunately, the guys who cloned Manhattan's Shark Bar, one of several upscale soul eateries that draw a cosmopolitan racial mix, are better cooks and restaurateurs than they are fact checkers--and they are genuinely hospitable.
After seven years of success on lively Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, a strip with an amazingly high restaurant mortality rate, partners Stephen Gobourne and Andre Suite decided it was time to go national. Gobourne's college roommate, Paul Wilkinson, suggested Chicago as their first outpost and became a partner here. He extols the virtues of the location: a spacious, nicely appointed loft building in River West that formerly housed the ill-fated Affair restaurant. The main-floor dining room, with its white columns and painted brick walls, seats 125 with room to spare.
"This is definitely a destination spot. You just can't get this kind of space in the Loop. It's great overlooking the river and watching the lights of the Loop from the second floor or from the roof-deck bar," Wilkinson says. "Pretty soon we're going to have jazz and world-beat music, probably some blues, upstairs. There's really nothing like it in town."
But the Shark Bar is not simply another trendy New York transplant, thanks to executive chef Michael Franklin, part of the original New York culinary team and a 14-year veteran of soul kitchens.
"This isn't your regular soul food," he insists. "This is new-wave soul. It's not the usual bland stuff. I've eaten in a lot of Chicago southern-style and soul restaurants, and I find it bland. This has got flavor. Not heat. Flavor. It comes from everywhere, like the Caribbean, not just the south. There's no boundaries, no rules." He's so effusive it's difficult to concentrate on the food and listen at the same time.
"This is healthy food," he goes on. "I don't use lard. I use smoked turkey in place of pork--except for the pork chops or the ribs. I use a lot of seafood. In some ways this is almost a seafood restaurant. Hey, try the catfish. All the different kinds. Try the shrimp. Try the crab cake. Hey--did you get a crab cake?"
Yes, the crab cakes ($6.95) really are first-rate--crisp, full of sweet crab flavor, put together with a minimum of filler, just enough to hold them together. Tartar sauce and hot sauce come on the side, but you don't need either.
One of Franklin's original creations is the soul wrap, a tortilla filled with shredded chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and rice ($4.95)--the essence of his crossover cooking. On a subtler level, the grilled oysters on the half shell ($6.95) emerge plump and tasty in a licorice-tinged Pernod butter. Speaking of healthy, the meat loaf is made with smoked turkey ($11.95). It's spiced so nicely you'll never miss the beef.
Somehow we manage to work our way through three or four platters heaped with samples--almost the whole menu. We try the catfish, which comes both fried and blackened ($13.95). It's got real catfish flavor, that earthy taste so many farm-raised cats lack. The same good flavor comes through in the mix of catfish and shellfish in the thick, full-bodied gumbo ($16.95).
The fried chicken has a zippy crust ($12.95), but even more interesting is the jerked Cornish hen ($13.95), a mild but savory version of the Jamaican chicken barbecue paired with fresh pineapple salsa. An incendiary Jamaican jerk sauce comes on the side if you're a fan of the authentic sensation--but be forewarned.
Shrimp come in a rich, classic, mahogany-colored etouffee, or in an assertive but not overheated Caribbean-style curry sauce, which I preferred ($15.95). A similar curry sauce lends a touch of magic to baked short ribs, one of the most flavorful but underappreciated cuts of beef ($14.95).
But as a fan of true south-side Chicago-style barbecued ribs, I must say I prefer the local version to the Shark Bar's ($14.95). The meat is good, but the Savannah-style sauce, heavy on the honey, is too sweet for my taste, and the ribs are cooked close to the falling-off-the-bone stage. I prefer a bit more vigor and a bit more gnaw--a la Leon's. Well, New York was never known for its ribs.
You get a duet of soul classics as side dishes, drawn from a list that includes slightly sweetened collard greens, black-eyed peas, corn on the cob, red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and such--or you can order a vegetarian entree composed of four sides for $11.95.
There's also a basket of mixed rolls, including moist, sweet corn bread and very interesting sweet potato biscuits with an almost molasses flavor. But my favorites are the simple baking powder biscuits--mellow and flaky enough to eat without butter. Desserts include a very chocolaty brownie, excellent sweet potato pie, moist carrot cake, and key lime pie ($4.95 each).
Apart from its many virtues as a restaurant and watering hole, this may be the first downtown restaurant to really crack Chicago's subtle color line, both in ownership and clientele. "Chicago really doesn't have a downtown restaurant where upscale blacks can feel at home and whites can enjoy comfortably as well--the way people can mix at a blues or music club," says Gobourne. "At lunchtime I would say our crowd is 50-50, black and white. At dinner it's about 65 percent black--about what the mix is in New York."
"It's a neutral location for everyone, black or white," says Wilkinson. "Just look around!"
The Shark Bar, 212 N. Canal, serves lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 Monday through Friday. Dinner is from 5:30 to 11 Sunday through Wednesday, to midnight Thursday, and to 2 AM Friday and Saturday. A gospel buffet brunch is served from 11:30 to 3 Sunday. Call 312-559-9057. --Don Rose
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Wilkinson, Michael Franklin, Stephen Gobourne photo by J.B. Spector.