Gilt Bar

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Photograph: Jill Paider
Ricotta gnocchi at Gilt Bar
River North
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I’ll never know why I was forgotten the first time I visited Gilt Bar. It could have been that the area I was waiting in was out of the hostess’s line of vision. It could have been that there was another party with the same size and name, and the restaurant got confused. But I suspect it had more to do with my look, or lack thereof. It took me almost ten minutes of waiting at the bar to get a cocktail list, and when I finally did grab one, the natty bartender seemed put out to deal with me. And later—much later—an hour after my reservation had expired, my companion and I were led past many empty tables, to the far end of the dark dining room, as close to the kitchen as possible. We had been given the worst seats in the house.

A woman who later told us she was the manager came over. “How are you feeling about this table?” she asked.

“We hate it,” my companion replied.

“Yeah, that’s the general feeling about it,” she said.

She offered to move us to a different table, which would require another wait, or to four stools that faced directly into the kitchen. We decided to stay put.

The manager offered a round of drinks. We declined. She sent them out anyway, leaving me with yet another Martinez, which tasted too much like Orange Crush and not enough like gin. At first shunned, we were now being showered with gifts. Foie gras was sent out. The hostess who forgot about us was sent to our table to whimper an apology. Somehow, the restaurant had decided to care about whether we were enjoying ourselves.

Days later, I confirmed what I had suspected—my cover had been blown. The restaurant had done a 180 because the forgotten customer was a critic.

The discrepancy in treatment disgusted me, and I couldn’t decide which was worse: being shunned or being paid undue attention. I did know one thing, though: Not a single dish was good enough to elevate my experience above the snobby, pandering service. Of all of them, the ricotta gnocchi came the closest—the dumplings had a lovely lightness and were satisfactory vehicles for brown butter and sage. But like most of this food, it toed the line between simple and boring. My burrata arrived plain, crying out for olive oil and salt. The “spoon tender” pot roast (indeed eatable with a spoon) had more going for it in texture than in flavor, which was one saucy, beefy note.

More often the food lingered in the mostly pleasurable space between “fine” and “good.” The grilled chicken with espelette pepper (a shameless knockoff of the Publican’s signature dish) was at once juicy and predictable—a dish that would have been a triumph in a home kitchen, but was a head-scratcher from this professional one. The croque-madame was a decadent amalgam of egg, cheese and bacon, but it, too, struck only one note (a rich, over-the-top one). I ate a nicely cooked swordfish in a fine tomato sauce, and standard-issue bone marrow that had been browned and crisped while roasted, and fork-tender cauliflower tossed with a pinch of chile powder, and it was fine, all solid—and all lacking the push that could have made it more memorable.

Which is why the memory of the service remains in my head. Though on my second visit—where my vague disguise seemed to have worked—the staff was perfectly pleasant, and by the end of the meal I was feeling pretty content. My companion and I had ordered some desserts from the charming pastry program—it’s all homey baked goods, ice-cream sundaes and housemade candies (try the peanut chews, but not the truffles)—and when our plate of brownies arrived, we found that they had been warmed. For a moment, I became wrapped up in the satisfying, nostalgic feel of warm cake. But then the brownies cooled, and the magic faded—proving that it was never actually there to begin with.

By David Tamarkin

Venue name: Gilt Bar
Address: 230 W Kinzie St

Cross street: between Wells and Franklin Sts
Opening hours: Dinner
Transport: El stop: Brown, Purple (rush hrs) to Merchandise Mart. Bus: 37, 65, 125, 156.
Price: Average main course: $20
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