The drinks menu at West Loop’s Paramount Room is a crossroad of seduction, its list tempting in almost every direction. There are the wines, a small but thoughtful selection, with none of the mass-produced usual suspects you usually find on lists of this size. There’s beer—clearly the preferred quaff here—with a list that reads like a beer dork’s dream and with only a few selections (PBR, Goose Island) not coming from small craft breweries. And there are cocktails—some of which are classic (the Paramount Manhattan), some of which seem pretty cheesy (any cocktail named after an ice cream, like Paramount’s “Dreamsicle,” raises a flag for this drinker) and some of which, like the Blackberry Sage Gin Fizz, just seem plain idiotic not to drink.
But before you do, check and make sure the person mixing your tipple is a bartender. After setting that gin fizz and a “Green Ginger” (cucumber, ginger, vodka) in front of us one night, our bartender asked how they were. The truth was they were a little hot, the burn of the alcohol not quite balanced by the other flavors in the drink. But before we could say anything, he admitted, “I’m not the bartender. I’m the chef.”
Unbalanced cocktails aside, we had a surprisingly mild reaction to this confession—surprising because, under normal circumstances, it would be unsettling to see the chef out of the kitchen, especially so early in a restaurant’s career. But at Paramount Room, where most of the dishes are glorified bar snacks anyway, Dunne can be forgiven for spending time behind the bar. After all, he has to be familiar with tipples inspiring his cuisine, right?
Besides, having Dunne as our server that night had its advantages. When our Scotch egg—an egg rolled in sausage, then battered and fried—arrived and we found the sausage still completely raw and pink inside, he was right there to assure us it was still safe to eat. (Maybe that’s true; still, I would have preferred the spicy sausage cooked through.) Beer-battered pickle spears came next, and it was impressive how cool and crisp the vinegary pickles remained after being dipped in the fryer. As a bar snack, a mere accompaniment to beer, they were perfect. But as an appetizer, they’re underwhelming—just not a lot there to hold your interest.
The rest of the menu follows suit—the success of each dish depending on how closely you pay attention to it. Eat the house burger—tender Wagyu beef enriched by a perfectly fried egg—as the nourishment you need to keep drinking, and it’s great. But slow down and focus on the flavor, and you may be bothered by an overly strong and unpleasant herbaceousness emanating from the patty. Of course, sometimes this works the other way around: Spend too much time with your drink and you may miss how easily the duck confit and Berkshire pork shank fall from the bone. You may overlook how inspired the peekytoe crab salad is, the plate brushed with a stroke of avocado cream. And you may only notice that the fish-and-chips are fried to a non-greasy crunch, neglecting to note that the essence of the fish shines through as well. But, drinking or not, there’s no way not to notice how fatty and tough the steak tartare is.
Paramount Room hopes the drinking will continue well through dessert: The menu favors dessert wines and ports more than it does desserts themselves. Still, the menu offers two sweets, and while one of them, the chocolate turtle, is nothing but a sugar bomb, the “black and tan” float of housemade Guinness ice cream with Abita root beer is too dreamy to pass up. In fact, this dish may be Dunne’s greatest achievement. He’s accomplished what it seems he’s trying to do with the entire menu: combine the drinking and eating experiences into one.
415 N Milwaukee Ave between Kinzie and Hubbard Sts (312-829-6300). El: Blue to Grand. Bus: 8, 56, 65. Lunch (Sat, Sun), dinner. Average main course: $17.