This is not a review; it’s an intervention. City Winery: You have to get it together. You’ve been open a month—five weeks by the time this goes to press. From the safe distance of my computer, I’ve watched you struggle. Nearly every media outlet in the city was on site for your opening night—and nearly all of them waited hours for their food. Even theRedEye, a publication that doesn’t so much review restaurants as give them gentle pats in the right direction, laid it down, issuing a list of recommendations/mandates that boiled down to “Update the outdated food” and “Improve the food that’s not outdated.”
Yet, like the ever-softhearted RedEye, I “really want[ed] to like City Winery.” Why? Because it’s something a little different, and it’s exciting, and the depth of its commitment to klezmer music (every Sunday!) is somewhat astounding. And so I was happy to wait, to give this hulking mess of a bar/restaurant/winery/music venue/klezmer-brunch outlet time to get its sea legs. And when a month had passed, I showed up, on a weekday night when no one of real note was playing, to have dinner in the restaurant.
I was successfully seated by a friendly hostess, and then—well, if only the review could stop here, and I could save us all (including you, City Winery—I was rooting for you!) from this painstaking retelling. But I have to do it, because honestly, I have no idea how you’re going to fill those massive rooms if you get one more media lynching (and since you’re new to Chicago, I’ll just give you a heads up that there’s a band of critics right behind me). In the interest of not sounding like a total asshole, I will spare you the extent of my thoughts on the room, which I will just say has nearly as much ambience as a Barnes & Noble café. Better to focus on what can be changed: The service, which, though sweet, was borderline hopeless. It took a half hour just to get a glass of wine, and I suspect it’s nearly impossible to have a full meal here in anywhere less than two-and-a-half hours. On the plus side, the wine list is terrific, and I presume it would be quite nice (in a bougie, faux–Napa Valley kind of way) to linger over a bottle while nodding along to Paula Cole in the concert hall.
But what I won’t be doing, should I find my way back to that concert hall, is eating. On my visits I avoided the many menu items whose mere descriptions sound like dares (paella balls; something called “seawater tofu steak”), sticking with foods that are downright challenging to mess up. Yet, with the exception of the safe and solid bianchi flatbread (basically a rectangle of thin-crust pizza topped with ricotta and herbs), the kitchen managed to do so anyway, in ways variously simple (not toasting the bread that comes with the salumi plate), perplexing (a bitter chimichurri sauce on a dry flank steak; a “housemade” bagel at brunch that tastes no better than a Lender’s) and disturbing (a cheese plate that comes with spiced walnuts that taste the way paint smells; the single saddest, greasiest potato latkes that have ever come out of a professional kitchen).
You know, it’s perfectly chill that you have a molten chocolate cake on your menu. No one’s asking you to be Grant Achatz. But when I sliced into that cake with the side of my fork and discovered the cake was cooked all the way through, not even a smidgen of runny chocolate to be found, it was not chill. If I can make a better molten chocolate cake from a Trader Joe’s box in my microwave, you’re out of excuses.