Scott Walton is fighting an uphill battle. It’s not that the food he’s putting out at MarketHouse, the adjacent restaurant of the recently remodeled Streeterville DoubleTree, isn’t good (it is, in fact, and some of it borders on great). It’s that his food is competing with middle-aged tourists sporting shellacked perms and requesting buttery nipples and appletinis from the poor bartender (whose name, Jose, they insisted, sounded “so exotic” that it prompted the gaggle to request he pronounce the word tequila over and over again because they liked his accent). Now, I’m sure this particular 7pm hoopla in the restaurant’s lounge isn’t an every night occurrence (let’s hope for Jose’s sake it isn’t), but when the patrons range from loud-and-proud ladies-on-the-loose to single business travelers dining alone while reading the paper, it’s going to be a tough sell that you’re a hot dining destination, or even just a great neighborhood restaurant.
But the latter is exactly what MarketHouse could be with what Walton and his chef de cuisine Thomas Rice are putting out: seasonal, simple, approachable food that’s nice to look at and even better to eat. Clearly there’s a talent for balance and composition: Butternut squash was pureed and strained into a velvety soup that gained texture from crunchy pieces of pistachio brittle and acid from cranberry bits. Tender Berkshire pork chop was expertly grilled and likely oven-finished to keep it juicy enough to flavor the slightly sweet, German-style red cabbage underneath and savory enough to need the sweet-and-sour quince that topped it.
And as at any good neighborhood joint, even the simple stuff is done well, from the medium-rare burger that oozes bits of cheddar to hunks of greaseless, ale-battered walleye. Smartly, dishes like these two cover the safe zone needed for the guy who’s dining at the bar before hitting his Sleep Number Bed upstairs, while lighter appetites craving something fresh and delicious are met with things like a delicate salad of honey crisp apples, tender baby arugula and lightly sweet beets, all countered by funky, salty hunks of buttermilk blue cheese and an ideal, tart cider vinaigrette. Similarly, “pastrami-cured” salmon’s hit of smoky black pepper, caraway and coriander is an intensely flavorful bite, so the chefs wisely let it star while crunchy yellow and green beans, ribbons of shaved fennel and a few slices of cara cara orange serve their purpose of cleansing the palate for the next bite.
This is smart food, well executed- (save for the one complaint of undersalting across the board) and delivered in a surprisingly stylish room (think Target’s designer series saves DoubleTree from drab). But it’s a tough location, with no real neighborhood feel to match the heart and soul behind its food. Here’s hoping that MarketHouse can hold onto its chefs, and that intrepid local diners will make the trek—if for nothing else than to stave off Jose’s impending depression by ordering a proper drink.