Chances are you've been to the not-quite-Bucktown/not-quite-Lincoln Park industrial corridor along the Chicago River at least once. And unless you've spent some time at out-of-the-way music venue The Hideout, loitering around the Morton Salt plant or working for the public sanitation department, you most likely haven't lingered here. But thanks to two new bars -- Ada Street from the owners of Lakeview's DMK Burger Bar and Fish Bar as well as Estate Ultra Bar from a set of first-time bar owners -- you might be getting lost in these parts more often.
1664 N. Ada St. 773-697-7069
Rating: 3 (out of four) Off to a great start
The scene: Those people who love being the first to try a new hot spot? They're all here. They've mapped it on their iPhones, gotten semi-creeped out by the deserted streets and nearly tripped over the step at the entrance to get here. When you do make it through that precarious door, you enter a drawing room/holding pen where a hostess will be happy to get you set up with your first round of drinks while you wait for a spot. Then it's just a quick walk down a hall past a wall full of wine and vinyl record storage to the bustling dining room.
The food: It may have the hours of a bar, but the big draw here may very well end up being the bites. The menu is true small plates with a hearty edge. The brussels sprouts ($4) dressed in soy sauce were crisp and flavorful, and the fried quail ($11) was ultra-crispy with a salty kick from the gravy (it's a small portion, so go ahead and order two). Don't miss the salmon tartare ($12), an indulgently creamy spread dotted with smoky bacon, or the desserts. Our waitress slyly suggested ordering both the brioche doughnuts ($7) along with the chocolate ganache with olive oil and sea salt ($7) so that we could spread the fudgy chocolate on the doughnuts and ... well, there's really nothing else to say here.
The drinks: Decisions, decisions. Ada's drink menu includes a short bottled beer list, plenty of wines by the glass or bottle and a dozen or so cocktails -- and they all looked appealing. For round one, I ordered All Tomorrow's Parties (Fernet Branca, ginger beer and lime) while my friend chose All This Useless Beauty (gin, apple cider, lemon and bitters). I can't drink Fernet Branca without thinking of cough medicine (albeit very classy medicine). But my friend disagreed, finding it balanced and refreshing. Her gin mix must have been good as well, because it quickly disappeared. The rich taste of Gonna Love You Until The Wheels Come Off (orange liqueur, chocolate-pear jam, lemon juice and bicarbonate) was just sweet enough, with a nice bite from the lemon. At $10 each, they're well-crafted and easily stand up to the food. And really, who can resist those cocktail names?
Bottom line: The food rarely missed a beat, and the cocktails leave you wanting to try the rest of the menu. It's crowded, loud, trendy and definitely worth the trip.
Estate Ultra Bar
1177 N. Elston Ave. 312-582-4777
Rating: 1 1/2 (out of four) Proceed with caution
The scene: Since this sprawling riverside bar's terrace and rooftop aren't yet in full swing, my first impressions may change when the summer crowd arrives. Disclaimer aside, Estate really doesn't seem to have a hold on what it wants to be. A long lunch and dinner menu of fancied-up American small plates screams "trendy resto," but the look and name skew clubby. Only the terrace seating was open when I stopped by, and the views are wholly unimpressive (unless you want to stare at the Division Street bridge, a huge glowing Mercedes-Benz sign or head to the parking lot where you can actually see the skyline). But a promised rooftop gazebo area may prove to have better views come summertime.
The drinks: A specialty cocktail called The Yachtsman ($12 and made with, gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liquor, lemon juice, simple syrup and a "lemon fireball," aka lemon peel garnish) has a limit of three per person, so I naturally ordered one. It wasn't horrible, but was heavy on the lemon and syrup. The Life's Too Short (named for the wacky bar that used to occupy this space) mixed tequila, Hum, yellow chartreuse, agave, ginger beer and hibiscus bitters ($10) to a similar too-sweet effect. But really, who's coming here for craft cocktails? The skinny cocktails ($9 per drink or $32 for a carafe) might see more action, but beers and shots on the roof are probably going to be the main driver.
The food: I so badly wanted to love something on the menu. But the roasted olives ($5) were bland, the shrimp cocktail ($9 for 3 pieces) suffered from a not-totally-deveined shrimp and the harissa chicken ($9), a trio of roasted chili-spiced chicken legs, arrived still half-frozen (clearly cooked through, but not reheated fully).
Bottom line: If you're looking for an outdoor spot in the area, I wouldn't blame you for stopping by the rooftop for a beer this summer. But take your dinner and cocktailing business elsewhere.
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