Oxtail ragu and toast at Argent in River North (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
660 N. State St. 312-202-6050
Rating: !! (out of four) Give it some time
Is it just me, or have Chicago chefs caught the nostalgia bug lately? Grant Achatz took us back to Paris in 1906 when he opened Next last spring. Then, Au Cheval modernized the classic American diner for the new millennium, and Big Jones revamped its menu to focus on Southern dishes from specific eras. This summer, River North's Argent doles out your next culinary history lesson with a menu inspired by Chicago in the late 1800s, when the city rose from the ashes of the Great Fire to host the World's Fair.
If the offbeat theme of this new restaurant (which replaces Asian steakhouse Aja inside the Dana Hotel) doesn't catch your attention, the mass of local talent running it will. Argent is the creation of a new restaurant group called C.O.A.L., made up of nightclub owner Sean Mulroney (of Double Door and Delilah's), chef and operator Toni Motamen (of Raw Bar in Wrigleyville), marketing maven Julie Darling and "Design on a Dime" host Brice Cooper.
Though this gleaming, swaggering time in Chicago is the jumping-off point, there's still a hefty dose of Asian flavor in the mix, thanks to Rodelio Aglibot, the former Sunda chef who developed the menu, and executive chef Jackie Shen, known for her time at pan-Asian Red Light. I sat down to dinner last weekend to give my taste buds a history lesson of their own.
I couldn't help but feel confused … after looking over the menu. In addition to some staples that characterized Midwestern food at the turn of the century, there are also Asian-inspired dishes, hotel restaurant basics such as steaks and roast chicken, plus a raw bar for diners who just want to stop by for a dozen oysters. That's a lot to throw into one pot, even for a restaurant as large as Argent.
For a history lesson … scan the menu for dishes that sound like something your great-grandmother might have eaten. The "Because I'm French!" salad ($7) came with French dressing made with a recipe from a circa-1856 cookbook in Aglibot's personal collection. Though it was a great version of the classic, I would have been more impressed if it had other veggies besides just mixed greens. The "SOS" portion of the menu is a reference to "shit on a shingle," a retro military term for creamed chipped beef on bread. In that category, the oxtail and bone marrow ragu ($15), which I slathered generously on grilled toast, has a hearty and savory flavor, but a few tough bites of gristle ruined it for me. When I asked for a recommendation from entree section (labeled "Big As Plates," to keep it PG-13, my server said with a wink), he recommended the old-school pork stroganoff ($18). It tasted modern thanks to the refreshing, spicy combo of habanero pesto and creme fraiche, but the meat didn't pack the porky, stick-to-your-ribs richness that I craved from a nostalgic dish like this. On the dessert menu, the moon pie ($9) sounded like a home run but came out overly cakey.
When the menu veers Eastern … it's hit or miss. I was intrigued by the Spam nigiri ($5), inspired by a Hawaiian dish that took root when American troops were stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Browned sushi rice and the infamous canned lunch meat were cutely wrapped up with a ribbon of nori. It's as salty as you'd expect, and unfortunately, the presentation is more novel than anything else. Seafood offerings are more successful; the hamachi sashimi ($15) was clearly high-quality, and the raw and pickled jalapenos that come with it add a tart and spicy dimension. Similarly, sushi-grade scallops with ginger butter ($26) atop a golden baked polenta cake—a dish of Shen's that strays from the historic theme—are fresh and seared perfectly.
For a pricey hotel meal … many of the polished touches you'd expect weren't quite up and running during the second week of service. The cocktail list isn't ready yet, an ice bucket for wine couldn't be located until halfway through the meal, and some pacing problems are still be worked out. Luckily, the remarkably polite servers made up for it with plenty of smiles and earnest hustle.
Bottom line: While its kitchen is clearly capable of delivering flavorful, unique food, Argent seems to suffer from a lack of commitment. The time-traveling bit has worked at other restaurants when the chefs have committed completely; here, it feels like just a distraction from a solid raw bar and Asian-influenced dishes. When Aglibot's flavors come through, the menu shines, but some of the throwback dishes I tried would be best left in the past.
MORE ON ARGENT
If you remember Aja: Then you might do a double take. Though the basic multi-leveled structure remains, it's all dark, sleek metal and the sushi bar has been replaced by a raw bar with a "floating" counter suspended from the ceiling.
When the weather's warm: Sidewalk seating offers street-level views of State Street and a prime spot to sip wine and slurp oysters.
The morning after: The weekend brunch menu features dishes such as lobster hash ($21) and a tuna BLT ($18) with wasabi-lime mayo.
Reservations: Recommended for dinner. Night owls should note that the kitchen stays open until 1 a.m. Fridays and 2 a.m. Saturdays.
The crowd: Hotel guests mixed with date-night couples and girls-night-out groups.
Kate Bernot is a RedEye special contributor. Reviewers visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago