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BAR NONE Behind the curved wood bar, you’ll find a variety of quirky knickknacks among the shelves of wine and spirit bottles.

Full Circle

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | November 17, 2015

Tell someone you’re having dinner at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, and, odds are they’ll assume you’ll be at Cindy’s. The rooftop restaurant of the beautifully restored 125-year-old Henry Ives Cobb building has had people lining up to get in since the hotel opened in May. Its beautiful views of Millennium Park across the street and the lake beyond have made it this summer’s most Instagrammed Chicago location. (I’m willing to bet money on it.)

But another CAA restaurant is equally worth the journey—and, boy, what a journey it is. On the second floor, past the stunning lobby and beyond the bustling Game Room—with its billiard tables, tabletop shuffleboard and full-size bocce court, it lives up to its name and then some—you’ll arrive at Cherry Circle Room. The fun, hip vibe in all the second-floor operations comes courtesy of Land and Sea Dept., the same group responsible for Longman & Eagle, Parson’s and Lost Lake.

While the trip to CCR offers plenty of eye candy along the way, it’s hard not to let out an audible “wow” when you first lay eyes on the room. “We get that a lot,” said the hostess as she led us to one of the high-backed booths. The 100-seat space includes a number of cushy stools at the gleaming curved wood bar. The magical frozen-in-time feeling is heightened by the restaurant’s lack of windows.

Creating a menu that complements the space’s historic charm and appeals to the variety of visitors this Loop hotel attracts wasn’t easy. “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we pull from the past but still give customers more of a present feeling to the dining experience?’” says Executive Chef Peter Coenen (Boka, The Gage). Coenen found inspiration in original CCR menus from the early 1900s—foie gras pate with smoked duck consomme, anyone?—and in the old-school steakhouse vibe of the room. From there, he added plenty of his own modern twists.

For his version of beef tartare, for example, Coenen starts with chopped-to-order beef tenderloin and then adds a warming chile emulsion. An anchovy-spiked salsa verde brings in acidity, while grated aged Gouda lends a creaminess to the coarsely cut meat. Grilled Spanish octopus, another terrific starter, reaches beyond its normal confines with the addition of gochujang (Korean pepper paste) and bits of spicy pickled pineapple.

In the From the Butcher Block section of the menu, red-meat lovers have the option of four choices all carved tableside, including roasted leg of lamb for two and Chateaubriand. There’s also a tasty triple-cheese burger with a kicky horseradish-mustard aioli.

Vintage carts are also put to good use with the tableside cocktail program, available for a handful of classic drinks, including a wonderful Old Fashioned. “Our mixologist was appropriately bearded and knowledgeable,” said my dining companion. Not sure if Beverage Director Paul McGee had anything to do with the former—his beard is legendary—but his skilled handiwork is definitely evident in the latter. McGee has done his homework for the six “historic” cocktails too, which were inspired by a 1914 book, Drinks, by Chicago bartender Jacques Straub. I’m partial to the byrrh, a bracing wine-based aperitif bolstered by rye whiskey and sweet vermouth.

Coenen also does lovely things with fish. Broiled Alaskan halibut comes paired with a small mound of squid-ink pasta and sits in a light, refreshing Bloody Mary-based sauce. Crispy-skinned roasted branzino is even better with an earthy plate partner of caramelized cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. A creamy fish bone-based sauce is poured tableside.

The sleeper entree, though, is the farro “risotto.” Its simple menu description belies the depth of flavors Coenen coaxes out of the seasonal vegetables, herbs and smoked onion soubise. “Part of the concept was to undersell on the menu and over deliver on the quality of the food,” says Coenen.

Desserts take a similar more-than-meets-the-eye approach. The simply titled Chocolate and Raspberry is a lovely deconstructed plate of a pudding-like chocolate crémeux, raspberries and miso-caramel ice cream. Delicious and comforting.

“Back in the day, Cherry Circle Room was exclusive,” says Coenen. “Now we want it to be inclusive so that everyone feels welcome here.” To that we say, mission accomplished.

CHERRY CIRCLE ROOM
12 S. Michigan Ave., 312.792.3515
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Firsts: $8-$15; caviar: $30-$55; entrees: $14-$65; sides: $5-$9; desserts: $3-$13