When Phil Vettel reviewed RPM he coined the term “Nitropub” to describe the recent trend of selling high-priced appetizers at bars. “Nitro” instead of the conventional “gastro” because he thought it more appropriate for the energy they ooze. Perhaps. They can overload my ears, underload my eyes, and have a Bloody Mary sommelier. They are almost always mediocre. But Au Cheval is slightly better.
I blame Paul Kahan for many sins that I first observed at his establishments. Blackbird for dinner plate microscopy. Avec and later Publican for communal seating. Publican and Big Star for the now endemic: “we bring it out as it’s ready” = inability/unwillingness to manage flow and have one diner either awkwardly sitting with a plate for 10 minutes having it get cold or sitting for 10 minutes at the end of the meal while the other party finishes. Either way, dear management, someone will be sitting awkwardly at one of these two points in the meal so why not just spare us said awkwardness and let the dish that was flamed first sit under the heat lamps? We honestly won’t mind. This policy has infected everyone so thoroughly that Au Cheval (or RPM, and a great number of recent places) doesn’t even bother telling you that stuff will be lobbed onto the table in whatever order they goddam please. I have to stress loudly, past the point of politeness, that WE (not I) will be STARTING with the soup. Bring two spoons. I shouldn’t have to say this. But almost without fail, the plate will arrive with a single spoon leaving me to eat with the glorified coffee stirrer. To their credit, Au Cheval had spoons in their utensil wrap saving me this particular sound-off. And they heard me on the “starting with” which is a rare treat in the ranks of Nitropubs. Hearing anything is a treat I suppose but anyway, I don’t care what Anthony Bourdain says. I love my serving of hot liquid almost as much as my alcoholic one. I want it and I want it first.
Au Cheval is pretty good. It suffers the typical missteps of youth even though Brendan Sodikoff is neither a kid nor inexperienced. He has Gilt, Maude’s and the Doughnut Vault on his resume. With such a thickening portfolio, it would be wise to learn from the mistakes of others as well as their successes. Dinner was good. Not great. The best part of the experience was the Matzah ball soup. Think more e.Leaven’s delicate broth than Manny’s ocean of salted dough. I ordered the 2 pound pork porterhouse on a thick and lovely bone. Why? Because, what did you expect? Restraint? Please. Anyway, when such options do exist, cost 2x more than anything else on the menu ($39), and especially when they are beef or pork or something else not seasonal or perishable, the person ordering damn well expects it to be of excellent quantity, quality and avail itself of the finest preparation. The person who cooked this “porkterhouse” was definitely new to task having perhaps cooked only steaks before. Now, I will be the first to tell you that I prefer pork undercooked. Ditka’s. Hugo’s. Even D. Kelly do (or did) this smashingly. Mind you, the waitress didn’t even ask about the temperature. I presume, because they know better. I also guarantee you that most normal people would have sent this back so fast that a Higgs could have been observed en route. It was absolutely raw in many places, not just by the bone. This despite having been “butterflied” as is common practice when one orders a rock of overcooked carbon for a filet. Again, I love my pork medium-rare. It’s a little creepy but still good when rare but let’s agree to file the black-and-blue preps back in the beef column. Yeah, I ate it anyway. But you probably won’t and what you send back will come back inedible as is always the case when heat is removed and added twice. And, pork of this heft can use a few more seconds at 1200 degrees to help break down the tough gristle and fat that is otherwise uncuttable, unchewable and thus inedible. My two pounds of flesh was nothing of the sort so don’t be very impressed. But there was a sprinkling of Foie Gras bits about the plate so we called it even. They were excellent.
The female had the salmon which was good and well-priced. $18 for a reasonable cut with ample areas of both crispy/burnt and thick, raw. I prefer my salmon with this duality of extremes without having most of the fish fall into the middle class of slightly overdone. This requires a special cut (looks like the graph of a logarithm with a connecting line to x) and a superhot heat source. The fries with egg were very good but fell short of the overwhelming quality and quantity common to most other places charging $9 for the plate. The Bloody Maries that we drank as our Amuse course were truly excellent. I like my mix a little thicker than Branch 27 but thinner than Spoke. But the rim-job here was sensational: thick, cracked black pepper and sea salt. Yum. Well worth the 10 bucks. The martinis however? Unless you give a Gibson’s sized glass, $12 does not belong in Chicago, unless it’s Accounting 101. And $14 for a glass of a $26 bottle of River’s Edge??? That’s retail BTW; restaurants get it cheaper. This is abuse of a high order and you can rest assured that somewhere someone did a breakeven analysis and decided to pad this, not that. I suggest you order the signature drinks. They are worth it.
By the time we got to the gelato I was pretty full and I guess there can indeed be no room left for ice cream if one just got done struggling with a monster porketerhouse, fries, soup, 4 drinks and all the other crap I had that day. The scoops were big and very good. At $6/3 scoops, I’m not overwhelmingly sorry that I didn’t save room for them.
Anyway, if you’re loving the “nitropub” concept you will probably think all of the above to be some bitchy musings. But if you still go out to DINNER and order entrees, you like your food to arrive at the same time as your date’s and you could use a few more lumens in the dining room to properly read the menu then you might be closer to that label than you think.