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Octopus carpaccio with malbec chips

Where There's Smoke

by Lisa Shames | Photo by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | June 11, 2015

Let’s be honest: You don’t go to an Argentine steakhouse to eat vegetables. At Rural Society, the new Streeterville restaurant in the Loews Chicago Hotel, you could—and quite deliciously too. The place’s massive white oak and hickory-burning parrilla, with its three grills that can be raised or lowered with the "ick of a wrist, does indeed do amazing things to nonmeat items. But good luck taking your focus off the main offerings. You’ll have to fight your way through wonderful smoky aromas of grilling meat before you even get to your table.

This is the 18th restaurant for Executive Chef Jose Garces, who has shown at nearby Mercat a la Planxa that he knows his way around the Catalan region of Spain. The Chicago native has also proven his expertise with other cuisines—Andalusian, modern Mexican, Latin-Asian and classic American—in four other cities, earning a James Beard Foundation Award for best chef Mid-Atlantic and an Iron Chef win in the process. At Rural Society, Garces and Chef de Cuisine Cory Morris, a Mercat veteran, explore the food of Argentina.

It does indeed include vegetables, including the roasted red peppers (morrones) from the Argentine Specialties section of the menu, which are cooked very slowly to ensure they benefit from some flavor-enhancing caramelization. Paired with dollops of whipped eggplant—its hint of smoke courtesy of that grill too—anchovies and a generous splash of olive oil, the dish is simple but far from boring. That’s what you’ll $nd throughout Rural Society: great ingredients handled in a way that makes them shine with minimal—or, more often than not, no—frills.

The grilled sweetbreads (mollejas), in this case lamb, are a perfect example, accessorized with only a sprinkling of chopped parsley and a lemon wedge. “They kind of taste like foie gras,” said the attentive bartender. And he was right. His white wine recommendation of an Argentine Alta Vista torrontes ($13 by the glass) from the South Americanleaning list was spot on too. Those sweetbreads also make an appearance on the asado mixto, accompanied by three sausages, including a wonderful blood sausage (morcilla), perfumed with nutmeg, cinnamon and clove.

There’s a bit more adornment for the octopus carpaccio, in which superthin slices of the cephalopod are drizzled with a perky tomato escabeche and garnished with malbec-braised potato chips. 

Simple goes out the door in a good way with the gratis bread service, which includes an onion- and herb-topped foccacia, sesame rolls and, my favorite, cheese puffs. A vinegary salsa, chimichurri (a traditional Argentine sauce of garlic, parsley and olive oil) and butter accented with malbec, hence its purple hue, are served on the side. (On a solo bar visit, the carb bounty never appeared, but a request for a second round of toasted bread slices was met without a hitch.)

There are more carbs to be had in the pasta section of the menu, including the canelon negro, which is stuffed with chunks of crab and rests in a slightly sweet tomato sauce. While I’ve had squid-ink spaghetti, I’ve never experienced the black-colored pasta in a cylindrical-shaped cannelloni before. At Rural Society, it’s served in a cast-iron skillet looking like a enchilada suitable for Darth Vader.

For its name and interior design, Rural Society, which has another location in Washington, D.C., draws inspiration from La Exposición Rural, an annual agricultural and livestock show held in Buenos Aires. In one dining room, the combination of cream-colored curtains and rustic wagon-wheel chandeliers hanging from beams strung with ropes give the space a tent-like vibe. An adjoining second dining area takes a slightly more re$ned approach with white tablecloths and wrought-iron light fixtures. The spacious lounge offers a gentlemen’s-club aesthetic with wood-paneled walls and thick beams on the ceiling. A variety of seating options make it perfect for those without reservations or the solo out-of-town diner this hotel restaurant is already attracting.

Throughout the space, you are under the watchful gaze of the cattle in the black-and-white vintage photographs hanging on the walls. The bovine portraits at the bar are downright adorable.

Speaking of which: When engaging the grilled meat section of the menu, pacing is in order. It might be best to bring a group of friends. While there are some usual suspects available—looking at you, rib-eye and New York strip—as well as nonred-meat options (Jidori chicken, lobster, trout), the short ribs (costillas de tira) are a winner. Served on the bone, the cut isn’t for those looking for melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. But the extra work rewards you with rich, smoky "avor in each chew.

Like at traditional steakhouses, you’re going to need to order sides. But at Rural Society, they’re not an afterthought, especially if you opt for the grilled wild mushrooms, which have a hint of truffle oil and tangy vinegar. Vegetarians, consider this your meat alternative, although good luck keeping the carnivores’ forks away. Potatoes, steak’s faithful sidekick, represent in $ve ways, each a nice exotic twist on the norm. e crispy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside papas nury have the added bonus of looking like cute mini armadillos with ridges carved in their top surface.

Dessert was, well... I can’t recall exactly. Let’s just say the Chocotorta, a small round chocolate-layered cake paired with caramel mousse and coffee ice cream was $ne, but not special enough for me or my dining companions to $nish it. But with so many ingredients bene$ting from a visit to that grill with its lovely, lingering aromas, I couldn’t help but wonder what it could do for the sweet side of the menu. Rural Society’s parrilla, I predict, is just getting warmed up.

435 N. Park Drive, 312.840.6605
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Firsts, $9-$24; pastas and pizzas, $11-$22; entrees, $26-$55; sides, $8-$13; dessert, $9-$11