The Pump Room
1301 N State Pkwy. Chicago, IL
|In its glory days (1940s-1960s) the Pump Room was arguably the finest restaurant in Chicago. And though this grand old dining room at the Omni Ambassador East Hotel hit rock bottom earlier this decade, it still has glamour and prestige. It reopened in July 1998 after a $2-million restorationg—with new owners (Texas oil barons) and a hot-shot new chef, Martial Noguier.|
|The room is as grand and extravagant as ever, with massive chandeliers, a live jazz band and truly fine china. But despite all the changes—including an updated menu with global influences and the addition to the menu of mizuma (Japanese greens), Thai curry and Israeli couscous—the Pump Room is not yet where it needs to be to regain its status as one of the city's most important restaurants.|
perfectly cooked, were delicious, bathed in a mild curry cream sauce with a
dollop of basil-infused whipped potatoes. When our blinis (one order) arrived,
we were glad for the second plate of langoustines,
as the blinis were hardly edible: mushy pancakes of wild rice topped with warm,
The red snapper with crawfish and saffron Israeli couscous in a creamy lobster sauce sounded intriguing. We asked the waitress if she recommended it. "If the kitchen does it right, it's really good," she replied.
|We should have taken her clue. The couscous and lobster sauce were heavenly, but
the fish was raw (not rare) in parts, extremely sinewy and impossible to cut. We
sent it back—only to receive the same tough piece again, which had been
re-cooked to the point of rubber.
On two subsequent visits, the service improved remarkably, as did the food, though it was still far from outstanding. A crab cake shaped like an egg roll, wrapped in phyllo, tasted great—the crab fresh, the vegetables crisp—but the fried dough oozed excess grease. Warm asparagus salad with mizuma and shaved Parmesan was beautiful but surprisingly bland. An entree of peppered tuna came dressed with a stunning tomato-garlic relish, served with grilled green onions, baby bok choy and lotus root chips. A ponzu (soy-based citrus) sauce added just the right zing.
|Lamb chops were tender and juicy on one visit, but gristly and tough on another.
We ordered the roasted veal chop medium rare, and it came medium. Still, it
tasted delicious, accented with mashed Yukon gold potatoes and a ragoût (stew)
of nutty chanterelle mushrooms and pearl onions.
Desserts were hit-or-miss. Sorbets were excellent, and vanilla ice cream melted over a caramelized apple crêpe was very good. Vanilla Bavarian cream lacked flavor. The chocolate "porcupine," a ball of chocolate mousse served on a cookie, with two meringue quills protruding from its back, didn't look much like a porcupine, but it tasted all right. A pistachio parfait was frozen in the center.
One Saturday night when the restaurant was packed, the reception desk lost our reservation, forcing us to wait 30 minutes in the bar. On a weekday visit when the restaurant was almost empty, the hostess led us past dozens of vacant tables and seated us next to a wailing child, whose vocal chords were still going strong a half-hour later. By the way, kids under 10 eat free.
The Pump Room has come a long way since reopening, but it still has quite a way to go.
—Brad A. Johnson
Photos: Steel Bokhof