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Ocean trout with beets, yogurt, cucumber and pistachios

Food for Thought

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | January 5, 2016

When was the last time you ate something that made you think? Not just a fleeting oh-this-is-good kind of thought, but one that forced you to sit up and take notice? I experienced that not once, but several times at Streeterville’s GreenRiver, which opened in September.

Take, for instance, the saffron spaghetti. It’s a beautiful-looking dish, as are many of the plates here, with a generous mound of housemade spaghetti topped with tender Manila clams, sea urchin lobes and herbs. The pasta’s soft-yellow color comes from the saffron in the dough, while the orange hue of the lightly creamy sauce is courtesy of the additional sea urchin that’s folded in. After my first bite, I immediately thought of the sea. Subsequent bites had me sitting in a beachfront trattoria in one of those impossibly charming Italian towns on the Amalfi Coast.

OK, so perhaps my love of sea urchin helped. But then I had a similar reaction to the Cornish hen. Sitting on a bed of silky potato puree, the Slagel Family Farm bird thigh is braised, while the breast is roasted, ensuring that both the dark and white meat are flavorful and juicy. Baby vegetables and red wine-poached prunes round out the dish. It had me thinking of Thanksgiving—that is, if one happens to have a really good chef in the family.

At GreenRiver, that would be Aaron Lirette, who previously worked at Celeste, Acadia and mk. He’s a local guy who’s proud of the relationships he has established over the years with the Midwest purveyors he uses and whose products inspire the food he creates.

Speaking of location, GreenRiver’s is worth mentioning, given that it is on the 18th floor of Northwestern’s Lavin Family Pavilion medical center. Fortunately, the year-old building’s lobby is more reminiscent of a swanky condo than a hospital. And once the elevator doors open and you step into the stunning 100-seat space—a mix of polished wood, white marble, sleek furniture and some of the best restaurant lighting in town (first-time daters, take note)—“medical center” leaves your mind.

There’s a natural flow from the bar area, which has a great view of the partially open kitchen, to the main dining room. That seamless progression is a telling aspect of GreenRiver, which is just as much a “casual fine-dining restaurant,” in Lirette’s words, as it is a cutting-edge bar. No surprise there, since in addition to having New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group behind it, so are Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, who cocktailians will know from the duo’s award-winning bar, The Dead Rabbit, in NYC.

The emphasis on drinking is also evident from the multipage cocktail menu—more of a novelette, really—divided into eight sections by the raw materials used for distilling spirits (rye, corn, barley, etc.). Inspiration for the 32 cocktails comes from Chicago’s Irish-American history, and each is accompanied by a short write-up on the drink’s namesake. Some will find the lengthy offerings a bit exhausting; others, like me, will revel.

Head Bartender Julie Momose, formerly of The Aviary, produces wonderfully balanced cocktails, and the fun bartenders are quick with recommendations. My request to try whatever the mixologists coming in are ordering resulted in the Meat Packer, a gin-focused cocktail with herbacious notes. “We either drink high-end stuff or really weird cocktails, since our palates are blown out,” said the bartender. My complex drink was the latter, and I loved it.

Beyond giving a front-row seat to all the mixology action—and, believe me, it’s a delight to watch—the 18 seats at the bar are a great spot to eat, since the full menu is available no matter where you sit. Those looking for something on the lighter side would be wise to order the smoked whitefish tartine from the Snacks section of the dinner menu, which also includes Appetizers and Plates. Served on a wooden board, the two thin slices of toasted bread are generously spread with the creamy fish salad and dusted with razor-thin slices of cucumber, radish and carrots. “That could be your entire meal,” said the well-dressed woman next to me. “The hell with Amy Vanderbilt,” she added, after watching me struggle with a knife and fork. “Go ahead and pick it up already.” She was right on both counts.

She, on the other hand, was quite pleased with my recommendation of the diver scallops appetizer. The two perfectly seared plump mollusks are served atop a puree of celery root and are paired with toasted hazelnuts and braised bits of fennel and pear. Farro, quickly becoming this year’s “it” grain, makes an appearance in a tasty salad with smoked grapes, Marcona almonds and a dollop of creamy burrata. And if burgers and beer are what you’re looking for, GreenRiver offers those as well. Judging from the second round of cheeseburgers the group at the bar ordered when I was there, they’re tasty too.

Pastry Chef Ji Hyun Yoon, most recently at Acadia, had just started on my visits, but if her version of a chocolate bar, with crispy praline and passion fruit puree—“a party of flavors and textures,” said my dinner mate—is any indication, I’m looking forward to trying more.

And the same goes for the dishes of Lirette. “With the great kitchen staff that we have comes idle hands,” he says of his constantly changing menu. “We have to keep busy, moving forward and evolving food.” Let the river flow.

259 E. Erie St., 18th Floor, 312.337.0101

Lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Mon.-Sat.

Snacks: $7-$18; appetizers: $11-$22; entrees: $17-$25; desserts: $12