By Michael Nagrant
At 8:30pm on a Friday night, The Drawing Room at Le Passage is kind of a lonely hearts club. There’s a six-top of cargo-shorts-wearing sunburned dudes slurping down Coronas. There’s a bony bald-headed Nosferatu-like guy in a smart-looking suit making his way through some food. In the opposite corner, an employee, head-to-toe in black sporting a taut ponytail, a “Marked for Death”-era Steven Seagal look-alike, warily scans the room. Finally, there’s a lanky, lonely old dude, who with his slicked-back gray hair, Harry Caray face-engulfing black-rimmed glasses, turquoise nylon windbreaker and Daisy-Duke-length boating shorts looks like a Viagra Triangle Aristotle Onassis.
Clearly he’s somebody, a regular or a Gold Coast moneybag, because even though he strolls in twenty minutes after us, he gets his drink first, while our table only an apology from the bartender that we’re next. But that’s the way it’s always been in this canyon under Rush Street: if you’re somebody, you get served, and if you’re nobody, it’s back behind the velvet rope with the herd. At least that’s how it was in the Billy Dec days, when his homey David Schwimmer ran free in the VIP Room. Sitting here now, beside white stone columns and under the glinting crystal chandelier, you can almost hear the ghost whispering, “Yo, I’m Ross from ‘Friends,’ baby. Let’s hook up.”
And so while the pecking order may not have changed under the new management of Three Headed Productions, I’d heard the food and drink had.
Head mixologist and operations manager, Charles Joly, has created a pretty impressive fresh cocktails list trading on pre-prohibition stalwarts like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. When the cocktail cart finally rolled around to our table, mixologist Tim Lacey, formerly of Custom House, spanked basil and shook his shaker until his forearm muscles bulged. All the while, like a sage of the snifter, he dispensed history and etymology with each drink served. Outside of Nacional 27, Sepia, MK and Violet Hour, no one is doing a cocktail program like this. The Japanese Julep, featuring Yamazaki Scotch, ginger simple syrup, yuzu and mint over crushed ice, with its smoky sweet citrus profile, was so good, Churchill Downs should do its Kentucky Derby visitors a service and substitute this for the traditional mint julep.
The only problem with the cocktail service: most of the drinks run an absurd $14-$16. I believe in paying for service and the rent surely ain’t cheap, but Drawing Room’s competition offers the same quality for about $11 a cocktail. With entrees here, which probably require more expensive ingredients and labor-intensive cooking, running as much as the drinks, the only thing you can really chalk this up to is pure-hubristic marketing-driven gougery.
Foodwise, another Custom Houser, Shawn McClain, the entrepreneur also behind Spring and Green Zebra, consulted on the original menu, and then sent forth a member of his flock, protégé Nick Lacasse, to execute the vision last November. A few weeks ago, Lacasse had done what Richard, the faux-hawked Wonka and Lisa, the whiny toque, couldn’t do in the finale of “Top Chef”: he bested Stephanie Izard in a head-to-head cooking competition.
One of the dishes he won with, a seared lobe of foie gras over toasted brioche with pickled fennel and kumquat gastrique, was a perfect prep of duck liver, featuring a palate-encompassing spectrum of sweet, tangy and salty flavors. The only quibble: too much toast, not enough foie.
The best dish of the evening, a sweet-and-hot-spiced Jamaican Jerk Quail with sweet potato and mango salsa had me gnawing the flesh off the bird down to its toothpick-sized bones.
Housemade gnocchi with summer squash and mixed farmers-market veg featured airy caramelized potato pasta nuggets that popped in my mouth like my Polish grandmother’s perfect pierogi.
I’ve always thought I’d never meet a piece of bacon I didn’t like, but I was a bit lukewarm on the pork belly here. The “bacon squared” dish was all sweet and molasses and needed some kind of acid. Likewise, the “Fish and Chips,” deep-fried golfball-sized salt cod croquettes drizzled with lemon aoli, could have been more aggressively salted.
The dessert list was only two plates strong, but the chocolate-dipped hazelnut ice cream with English toffee was one of the better desserts I’ve had this year. The savory salty hazelnut ice cream was the perfect foil to the rich chocolate and sweet buttery toffee.
By the end of our meal at 9:30pm, the room was still relatively empty, while just upstairs at Le Colonial people were pouring out the door, fighting tooth and nail for a seat. The Drawing Room, which opens at 6pm, is clearly hampered by its association with the late nights of Le Passage. The lounge stands on its own as a culinary destination and Nick Lecasse is a chef you should know. Joly told me the Drawing Room is planning on dropping the Le Passage name later this year. When they do, folks might just be fighting for tables like they do all around town on a Friday night. And if things get out of order, “Steven Seagal” will be there to regulate.
The Drawing Room, 937 North Rush, (312)255-0022