I know it’s sticky out there, especially in the shadeless South Loop. And I know it’s de rigueur that restaurants respond by creating winterlike conditions, lowering the AC to temperatures frigid and below. But City Tavern, you’ve gone too far. It’s not just cool in here but dark, and to look at your menu is to be transported to late October. Kale. Sunchokes. A beet-and-orange salad. On the sweets menu, the nail in the coffin: a tall slice of pecan pie. Can somebody please light the fire and give me a cup of hot chocolate? It’s holiday season in here.
This is not to say the place, decked out in weathered woods to resemble something you’d find in 18th-century Massachusetts, isn’t cute. I mean, you may need a flashlight to see all the details, but when you do, they’re charming. When the weather turns into something to escape, this will be a nice place to escape to. And at that point, chef Kendal Duque’s food will feel more appropriate. Hopefully by then some of the technical problems will have been resolved, too. Because while Duque, an alum of Sepia and the current chef atChicago Firehouse, is seasoned, his food is sometimes not. The guy has technical chops—he knows how to crisp up a fillet of walleye pike and fry a chicken golden and still keep it juicy. But he fails in seasoning each element of a dish, which would give, say, the porcinis accompanying that walleye a chance to shine on their own while simultaneously making the whole plate stronger. Instead, the food here has thick, overarching flavors. The walleye tastes like the lemony cashew sauce on the plate; the fried chicken is so underseasoned it tastes like nothing.
The thing that redeems all this is the drinks. In something of a Sepia reunion, Peter Vestinos created some nice cocktails for City Tavern: Pineapple syrup takes the edge off a sherry drink, a punch is fruity and balanced. That latter drink is somewhat summery, too. Still, you may want to drink it outside, or at least near the window—just to remind you what time of year it is.