Imagine being at the state fair, eating the foods you hate to lovefried cheese in the shape of a ball, gooey barbequed ribs, crispy hush puppies, doughy soft pretzels dipped in chees, and funnel cakes covered in powdered sugar. Then imagine all of those state-fair favorites being prepared by a talented and inspired chef. Welcome to Sable Kitchen & Bar.
This brand-new River North restaurant is housed in Palomar, the latest hotel from the Kimpton chain. I generally avoid hotel restaurants, assuming they have nothing to offer but boring food, dull personalities and annoying tourists. In this case, I could not be more wrong.
Sable chef Heather Terhune ( formerly of Atwood Café ) has taken classic American comfort foods and infused them with just the right amount gourmet flair. The deviled eggs, for example, are whipped with truffle oil and topped with black trumpet mushrooms, and the soft pretzels are glazed with Hawaiian black salt and served with a cauldron of creamy smoked cheddara far cry from that scary orange stuff you get at the fair.
Plenty of restaurants have experimented with turning classic dishes into upscale concoctions. But, here's the difference with SableTerhune actually does it right. Take the boring lunchbox standby, the ham and cheese sandwich. At Sable it is transformed into a fried popper filled with La Quercia ham and Swiss cheese. Terhune's take on the Reuben is brilliant: salty corned beef and sweet sauerkraut wrapped in phyllo dough and served with a house-made thousand island dipping sauce. And those are just the hors d'oeuvres!
The rest of the menu is made of small plates meant for sharing. There are chicken-and-buttermilk dumplings that I wish my mom had the recipe for when I was a kid. ( Sorry, Mom! ) I also recommend the smoked black cod. Terhune takes a ho-hum fish and makes it shine by serving it with horseradish dill cream, watercress salad and pumpernickel croutons. Remember that mushy creamed corn that somehow always found its way onto your plate at your grandparents' house? It tastes a lot better as a sweet corn crème brulee, which is how it shows up at Sable. Beneath a savory crunchy brulee is a warm sweet corn pudding. I found it slightly addicting, like movie theatre popcorn that you keep eating long after you know you should have stopped. The five spice pork ribs are juicy, tender and slathered in a spicy sweet sauce with sesame seeds and scallions.
The food at Sable may be reminiscent of a state fair or a 1950s dinner table, but the ambience is decidedly urbandark wood and marble, oversized leather booths, and a touch of old Hollywood glamour in the form of glittering gold columns and tufted chaise lounges.
And here's the best partjust about all of the dishes at Sable are available in half portions ( with some of the starters being less than $5! ) , so that means you can try a few dishes and still have a couple of bucks left for one or two of the specialty house cocktails. Granted, just about everybody with a liquor license is mixing up Prohibition-era cocktails these days. But very few are doing it as well as Jacques Bezuindenhout, Sable's "master mixologist." The "War of the Roses" was one of my favorites. It's a mix of Tanqueray, Pimms, St. Germain and grapefruit bitters in a champagne coupe, and let me just say, it goes down really easy. The "Scotch Bonnet" is another standoutscotch blended with guava nectar muddled with jalapeño. It's creamy, light, fruity and the perfect way to drink scotch if you can't handle it on the rocks ( which I can't ) . My girlfriend said it was like a "liquored-up smoothie" and, frankly, I couldn't have described it better.
Dessert at this place is an affair you do notI repeat, do notwant to miss. Terhune is also a former pastry chef, and it shows. The butterscotch pot de crème is served in an adorable little mason jar, but honestly, I'd happily eat this stuff out of a mixing bowl. There is also a dark chocolate soufflé served with peanut butter sauce and salted caramel ice cream. There is a saying that "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels," made popular a few years ago by supermodel Kate Moss. Kate, darling, try this soufflé and get back to us on that, ok?
And yes, there is an honest-to-goodness carnival-style funnel cakeavailable to you year round, right here in the big city. But this one is light, airy and served with homemade caramel apple ice cream. I don't think I'll ever be able to enjoy the state fair in quite the same way.
Sable is at 505 N. State; the phone is 312-755-9704. Also, visit www.SableChicago.com .