Chicago’s River Roast Fires Up

River Roast, brought to you by Levy Restaurants, is cooking with wood.

Combine a seasonally driven location (most recently of Fulton’s on the River) with a gorgeous view, add in two of Chicago’s most respected chefs of longstanding—John Hogan and Tony Mantuano—and the result is literally incendiary.

On an early fall night, the patio overlooking the glimmering Chicago River can be magical, although the construction gods didn’t play along on our visit. But even the intermittent din of a jackhammer on the LaSalle Street Bridge couldn’t completely harsh our mellow.

That, as it turned out, was the job of our well-meaning but incompetent server, clearly out of his element. Luckily, River Roast has a crack backup team delivering the food. How they navigate the enormous space is a mystery to me. In addition to the generous patio balcony overlooking the river, there’s a substantial dining room, an upstairs (street-level, actually) bar, and an enormous private dining space that housed a wedding on the night of our visit (a fact confirmed by the bridal gown hanging up in the women’s room).

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Exposed red brick, lots of reclaimed wood and gorgeous globe lighting fight with the live fire of an open kitchen—and a very hip urban crowd—for your attention. Settle down with one of the tempting, tasty cocktails ($11 each) on offer—perhaps the Kenosha, a nod to the classic Manhattan by way of the North Wood, or the Suddenly: Lemons, which combines lemon tea, Cocchi Rose and Leatherbee gin (I like a drink with its own colon) to zesty effect—and concentrate on the menu dotted with some of John Hogan’s greatest hits while enjoying the freshly toasted bread with what I can only refer to as Onion Soup au Gratin spread.

Known for his skill with charcuterie, Hogan proffers a Head to Hock Pork Cake ($9), the Hogan’s Charcuterie ($24) selection and a Foie & Duck Terrine ($25) in the “Bites & Boards” selection. We opted for the delicious Fire-Roasted Indiana Shrimp ($13), four head-on crustaceans covered with spicy roasted local-corn kernels; the Scotch Egg ($5) with pickled onion and mustard seed, which could’ve used some spice in the sausage layer; and the House-Smoked Trout ($14) with blini, celery-root slaw and trout caviar (dug the flavor profile here, but the presentation made it difficult to assemble and eat).

Loved, loved, loved the Artichokes Barigoule ($10), a take on the classic Provençal dish of artichokes braised in broth with onions and herbs. Here, they take it to the next level with the addition of smoky (of course) bacon and creamy goat cheese. The only dish that really missed the mark for me was the Chicago-Style Sashimi ($12), seared Wagyu beef with all the elements of a classic Chicago dog: roasted onion and pepper, pickle, dried tomato, celery salt and a poppy-seed crisp—but the crisp falls apart, and the Wagyu is beautifully marbled but kind of tasteless. Good concept, meh execution. I’d rather have the dog.

Order a Shaved Salad ($8) for the table; the paper-thin slices of market-fresh artichoke, fennel, radish, mushroom and celery are tossed lightly with fresh lemon juice and good olive oil and topped with shards of Parmesan cheese.

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On to the main event: River Roast is all about the shared main course, be it “The Big Fish” ($42, available crispy or fire roasted) or the wood smoked “Whole Chicken.” Billed for one, at $29 per 8 ounces, is the “Roast Beef” (actually a nicely cooked and sliced steak), which had a slightly livery flavor to it that I found off-putting.

More about that chicken: It is friggin’ fantastic, once I got past the presentation, which reminded me of a plump, headless Buddha or that old Peter Gabriel music video for “Sledgehammer.” Plump, juicy and perfectly brined, smoked and roasted, when paired with the crispy and delectable River Roast potatoes, it made for a very happy tummy.

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Round out your meal with a few dishes from the “Roots, Shoots & Veggies” options, and do not missHogan’s Peas, a British nursery favorite dotted with pearl onions, bacon nubbins and sautéed Bibb lettuce, held together with not a small amount of cream. And butter. Listen, fat is flavor, and these peas are damn good.

Dessert offerings include a Seasonal Fruit Pie ($8) and the Fat Elvis Pie ($11), both from Hoosier Mama Pie; if you’re looking for goods made in house (as I always am), you can opt for the Lemon Trifle ($8), chunks of pound cake layered with a sprightly lemon curd, fresh berries and whipped cream in a small glass trifle bowl; a Root Beer Float ($8) or a deep, dark Chocolate Pudding ($8) topped with freshly whipped (and lightly salted) cream.

There aren’t many surprises at River Roast. Given the one-two punch of Mantuano and Hogan’s involvement, I expected well-prepared modern comfort food, and that’s exactly what I got. That, plus the added star power of the Chicago River glistening with the reflected light of our beautiful city, will keep this spot hot.

3.5 out of 5 stars (B+)

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River Roast
315 N. LaSalle St.
Chicago
312-822-0100