Even in downtown Chicago, Tuesday night is not a time you’d expect to find a waiting list at a restaurant offering upscale comfort food, as The Gage Chicago calls its fare. But the pre-theater crowd we joined on a recent Tuesday night literally spilled out into the street, and when a table in the 300-seat restaurant emptied, it didn’t stay vacant long.
Much of this may be owing to the restaurant’s proximity to Chicago’s theater district. But the kitchen plays the leading role in the restaurant’s success, producing some true wonders that make The Gage a stop worth making, and the slightly upscale prices worth paying.
The restaurant is named after the historic Gage group of buildings, one of which it occupies. An 1889–90 collaboration between the architectural firm Holabird & Roche and architect Louis Sullivan, the buildings anticipate Chicago’s skyscraper boom and were among Sullivan’s last commissions. The historical cachet adds to the restaurant’s appeal.
The Gage was opened in 2007 by the Lawless family, a group of restauranteurs from Ireland who also own Henri, The Gage’s sister restaurant at 18 S. Michigan Ave., and The Irish Oak Tavern in Wrigleyville. Referring to The Gage as an Irish pub, while technically correct, would be a significant understatement.
The dinner menu divides into first, second, third and fourth selections, with each ascending group offering more elaborate and pricier options. The only thing difficult about the menu is how to narrow your choices.
We jumped right to the “third” section of the menu and ordered an appetizer of seared sea scallops ($17) to share. The three perfectly grilled mollusks were prepared with a decidedly Asian spin and nestled next to Chinese broccoli, deboned Korean BBQ short ribs, toasted whole peanuts and kimchi. As good as the scallops were, the side vegetables were that much better, each distinctive and offering a unique zest, including the kimchi, which we enjoyed in moderation.
We chose cheap on the wine menu, but a Terre Rouge Syrah Côtes de l’Ouest ($42) pleasantly surprised us. Billed as winemaker Bill Easton’s New World homage to Rhone wines, the Terre Rouge (“Red Earth”) drew from a palate of dried red fruits and occupied the mouth lightly, but with a delightful spicy-peppery quality. It was robust enough to match our heartier entree, but both subtle and supple enough to accommodate the lighter one.
And what were those entrees? We tried both the asparagus and leek ravioli ($21) and coffee-rubbed pork ($29), and it’s hard to say which dish exhibited more finesse.
The ravioli, four flattened pockets bathed in a Parmesan sauce, was served with grilled spring onion, cherry tomatoes and basil. The sauce did an excellent job providing a base to the dish, while the flavors of each vegetable emerged individually and in combination for a very satisfying vegetarian offering.
The pork – rubbed with espresso grounds that added a rich, roasted garnish – was comprised of slices of the “secreto” cut. Literally “secret” in Spanish, the secreto is the tender strip of pork hidden beneath the thick layer of belly fat. My secreto was flavorful, tender and substantive, with a veal-like tenderness. It is a cut I will look for again.
The pork was served on a bed of grits with sautéed ramps (wild leeks), fava beans, shaved prosciutto and small bits of grapefruit. As with the ravioli, the combinations of flavors and textures made the dish exceptional.
We don’t often order dessert, but we couldn’t pass up the rhubarb shortcake served with pistachios and lychee-basil seed sorbet. The rhubarb had been poached in Campari and steeped in a mixed-berry compote for a delightful new turn on an old favorite. The shortcake was tender and crumbly, and the sorbet was surprisingly savory rather than sweet. The complex mix of flavors was ably supported by the lychees. It was hands-down the most interesting dessert we have ever tried.
We’re not sure where The Gage can go from here, but we’ll always look for opportunities to go along for the ride.
On the table
24 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago
Hours: Monday-Wednesday., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; Thursday–Friday 11 a.m.–11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m.