Review: Pump Room
Thu. May 23, 2013 12:00 AM
by Rick Karlin
For those of us who grew up in Chicago, The Pump Room will forever have an air of glamour about it. Even though it's been nearly 50 years since it was the dining destination for celebrities visiting Chicago (hell it was even name checked in Judy Garland's version of the "Chicago"), the mystique still lingers. Its home, the swanky Ambassador Hotel, is now Ian Schrager's equally swanky The Public and it's been completely remodeled, but the old gal's still got it. The entrance hall is lined with photos of the various celebrities that dined in the famous "Booth One", and as a tribute, a replica of a vintage phone is still found next to said booth.
But, that's about as nostalgic as it gets. The new Pump Room is vibrant and modern, from the décor to the wait staff's attire. In the old days, you could tell how high up on the food chain an employee was, by the length of his (and it was always a "him", women were relegated to hat check or rest room attendant) jacket. The staff today wears black t-shirts, dark jeans and Converse sneakers. It's more relaxed, for certain, and that goes for the food.
You won't find old-fashioned staples such as chateaubriand or flaming shish ka-bobs. The price point is reasonably priced (for a fancy hotel dining room) and the bill of fare is approachable, but not mundane by any means. World-renowned chef and 2011 James Beard award winner Jean-Georges Vongerichten, brings his personal style (and love of spicy food) to re-imagined menu favorites. The clientele includes some who might remember the Rat Pack to those toting a backpack.
Chef Moosah Reaume supervises the kitchen, and he's got his work cut out for him, for on a recent visit for brunch (about the only time you can get a reservation) the main problems we encountered seemed to be emanating from a kitchen staff having problems with timing courses and seasoning food.
We were thrilled to be seated in Booth One, though we appeared to be the only ones in the restaurant that knew of its legendary status. No sooner than we were seated were we greeted by our server. I couldn't help but order the Moscow Mule, a refreshing (and potent) mixture of Belvedere vodka, thyme, ginger beer, lime and mint that went down way too easily. After one, I switched to iced tea so that I could enjoy my meal.
We began with the kale salad, an artfully arranged dish lightly dressed with creamy Parmesan dressing, fresh lemon and tiny sourdough croutons. The same croutons adorned the creamy sweet pea soup, which tasted like actual peas! Too often, pea soup is a heavy concoction with chunks of ham. This was as light and ethereal as could be. Both were sheer perfection.
Then the problems began. After a 35-minute wait for the next course, we ooohed and aaahed over our entrees. They were certainly attractive enough. However, The Public Burger was surprisingly small (really two bites less and it would have been a slider) for nearly $17. It came topped with grated farm cheddar, a truly goopy herbed mayo, pickled jalapeños and seven slices of dill pickles. After removing the pickles, so that I could actually taste the burger, I ended up leaving most of it, as it was too salty (was it the pickles, cheddar or the assertively seasoned meat?) The fries and house mad catsup were delish, but again, a bit too salty. The imaginative take on toad in a hole fared better. Extra thick ciabatta, with a perfectly cooked egg in the center and topped with delicate smoked salmon, and an extra kick from a spicy hollandaise. We ordered a side of the crunchy polenta "fries", the best dish of the day.
After waiting another 25 minutes after our plates were cleared, we finally had to ask another server for dessert menus as our server was tied up with a table of 20. As we looked over the menu, another employee brought us a cinnamon roll and peanut butter and jelly donut. I asked for a cappuccino and waited so that I could enjoy my sweets with it. After another 10 minutes, we tackled the pastries, which were both delish. My cappuccino came just as we were finishing. Glad I didn't wait, as it was cold.
It's a little disappointing, in some ways. The Pump Room gets so much right that the errors really stand out. There are some nice touches such as the fact that those who request doggy bags receive a claim ticket, their leftovers parked safely at the host stand. A minor gesture, perhaps, but an indication that someone is putting some thought into this. Then there are the glaring errors such as the overly salted food and large wait times between courses. Or, giving a server a huge table when he already has three other tables waiting for their next course (especially when they know one of those tables is a reviewer). And, don't get me started on the lighting fixtures that have been mounted so that the servers have to duck to avoid getting beaned in the noggin.
At a price point of between $50 and $100 a couple for brunch, the experience should be flawless.