Some days you just want to kick back with a Guinness and a basket of fish and chips at a quaint Irish pub. Other days you want to feast on elevated cuisine like bison tartare and oysters with citrus caviar gelee paired with a cold bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne at a chic downtown eatery. Well, at The Gage, a handsome tavern-restaurant hybrid on Michigan Avenue, you can do both.
The Gage is located in a historic landmark building across from Millennium Park, and many stately architectural elements remain, lending visual interest that draws you into the dark and noisy space. You can pick your poison here because the bar is fully stocked. You'll find seasonal cocktails, beers from breweries near and far, dozens of wines and even flights of whiskey. Wine lovers, be warned and bring your wallets: There isn't a single glass available for less than $13. I ordered a cocktail made with St. Germain and Prosecco (like the kind you can find on most drink menus these days), and it was utterly forgettable. I'm Irish so I should have known better. When you're at an Irish place, no matter how upscale it may be, stick with whiskey or beer.
The "snacks" portion of The Gage's menu could be characterized as comfort foods with some high-end touches. Instead of plain old peanuts, you get duck fat nuts. Instead of cheese and crackers, you get Brie fondue. In fairness, I've never met a melted cheese I didn't love, but the Brie fondue is pretty fantastic. It's rich and creamy and is served with long toasted breadsticks that are kind of like edible fondue forks.
My favorite starter, however, was the one that was free. After you settle into your table, the waiter arrives with a warm fresh-baked loaf of rye, which is some of the best bread I've eaten in Chicago. It begs you to butter piece after piece and shove it into your mouth until the whole thing is gone and you're wondering who the heck ordered the Brie fondue.
The second- and third-course offerings veer more into the high-end territory. Think venison pate, basil escargot with goat cheese fonduta and crisp rabbit salad with fried shallots and avocado. I opted for the caramelized lobster. It was served over lemon quinoa and drizzled with a spicy curry sauce. I'll give it points for creativity, but I'll have to deduct some for taking away from a delicious hunk of lobster with culinary experimentation. I've had much better preparations of lobster, and they are usually less fussy and far better.
That seafood mishap was quickly redeemed by the fluke (a mild whitefish) I ordered for my main course. It was cooked perfectly and served with Swiss chard, bite-sized pieces of butternut squash and roasted potatoes, which all conspired to provide the perfect hearty contrast to the delicate fish. I also tried the braised short rib ragout. The meat was tender and flavorful, and served in a sauce with vegetables over egg noodleskind of like the pot roast your mom used to make (but much better).
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Brussels sprouts at The Gage. The chef has figured out how to make America's most-hated vegetable very, very loveable. Just cover them in Brie and bacon! No one will ever complain again.
I'm so glad I didn't skip dessert because The Gage was serving one of the most inventive desserts I've ever hadpiping-hot sugar-dusted anise churros with coffee clove crème Anglaise for dipping. It sounds complicated, but it is actually a genius reinterpretation of one of the simplest and most comforting treats in the world: coffee and doughnuts.
I appreciate The Gage's higher-end offerings, several of which were quite good. However, what really shines at this place are the expertly prepared comfort foods that give just a subtle nod to haute cuisine without trying to be anything they are not.
The Gage is located at 24 S. Michigan Ave.; call 312-372-4243 or visit www.thegagechicago.com .
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