Illinois Restaurant Association Board Chair Sam Sanchez, along with daughters Samantha and Korina, aim to bring the party atmosphere to Chicago's River North area with Tree House (149 W. Kinzie St.; TreeHouseChicago.com), which occupies the space of the former Old Crow Smokehouse (and John Barleycorn before that).
In doing so, the Sanchezes want to lift patrons out of COVID-related doldrums and it largely succeedseven though this "clubstaurant" might strike some as a haven for only some demographics, as there are women servers wearing spandex and very large TV screens broadcasting sports. Also, it was mentioned to Windy City Times that the back room will soon be a combination cigar lounge/virtual golf course. (To be fair, Korina told my guest and me that only one man applied to be a serverbut he wasn't working that nightand the rest wanted to be bartenders.)
Yet Tree House exudes an irresistible vibe. It could be the inviting attitudes of the staffers (such as our bubbly server, Izzy), the decorations (which include ubiquitous foliage as well as a prominent disco ball) or the relentlessly catchy music (remixes of '90s tunes) that various DJs were spinning.
Or it could also be Tree House's food and drinkwhich include some dynamite offerings. Start with the drinks. The Honey Bear, a concoction of Effen vodka and honey-rosemary lemonade, was quite refreshing. My friend sampled a few but her favorite had to be the Mango Mezcala frozen drink that's simultaneously fiery and cool. Next time I plan to try the Welcome to Miami, which contains Cruzan rum, strawberry coconut, lime and coconut Red Bull.
And the foodExecutive Chef Marco Colin's (The Publican; Soho House; Alinea) combination of Italian and contemporary American dishesis just as impressive. Small-plate items include burrata, calamari fritti and chicken-parm sliders. Standouts are the Tree House meatballs (a pork/veal blend served with Publican sourdough) and the beet ricotta hummus (served with seasonal vegetables).
The pasta, as you might expect, is amazing. Rigatoniwith house vodka sauce, crispy prosciutto and parmigiano reggianois very tasty, but Tree House also has truffle spaghetti and orecchiette. Pizzas are of two styleswood-fired Neapolitan and Detroit-style (rectangular)and the flavors are varied and appealing. The Pepp Ricotta Detroit-style pie is the spot's most popular pizzaand for good reason: charred pepperoni, basil, aged parmigiano, ricotta and honey make this an especially enticing dish.
And if you have room for dessert (although I got mine to go), Tree House again strikes gold, with tiramisu, limoncello semifreddo (almond butter cake with lemon curd and limoncello mousse) and amaretto ricotta cheesecake. You can't go wrong with any of them.
However, the most surprising offering was something from a part of the menu some might consider mundane: the greens section. The butter lettuce (served with avocado and chives) wowed both of us, thanks to Colin's magical mustard vinaigrette.
Tree House actually ramps up the party vibe after 9 p.m., with items such as bottle service. Once dancing is allowed, I'm thinking all bets are offand if the music is as catchy as what we experienced, there will be much fun to be had.
But even now, Tree House deserves your attentionfor a variety of reasons.
NOTE: COVID-related precautions include social distancing, QR-code menus on tables, plastic partitions between some tables and bottles of hand sanitizer on tables.