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March 9, 2009

Custom House

by gastronomicbypass

Location – 500 S. Dearborn (Dearborn and Congress)

In one word – Occasion

Food – Custom House is the meat-centric restaurant in Shawn McClain’s foodie-mecca-trio that also includes Spring (fish-centric) and Green Zebra (vegetarian-centric). All three restaurants can certainly boast the same high levels of creativity and quality showcased in their seasonal menu, however, the personalized service and stylish ambiance at CH, makes it my go-to “Special Occasion” restaurant in Chicago. Recently my Trusty Sidekick and I ate at CH again for Valentine’s Day.

For Valentine’s CH offered a prix fix menu—four courses for $80/person, not including wine. Each course had several choices. I chose the tuna tartar with blood orange, the king crab salad, and seared scallops for my main course. The tuna tartar was my favorite course—the tuna was dressed with blood orange juice and a little olive oil and the small juicy pieces of blood orange had a hint of raspberry flavor that complimented the sweet taste of the tuna. My Trusty Sidekick also chose the tuna tartar, then had the roasted beet salad with mascarpone and for his main course he ordered the dry-aged New York strip steak. He loved the tuna tartar too, but his favorite was the steak, which was juicy and flavorful. Our meal also included two sides: sautéed green beans and CH’s creamy mashed potatoes. These mashed potatoes are impossible. You just can’t figure out how they could ever exist in a form that’s this silky, smooth, and light. They boggle the mind. For dessert I tried the chocolate banana bread pudding, which had great banana flavor but wasn’t anything memorable. My Trusty Sidekick chose the cheese plate, which included five or six different types of cheeses, including a really strong delicious bleu cheese.

On a side note, I was so disappointed that the prix fix menu didn’t include one of Custom House’s thick, silky, fresh vegetable soups, which, besides their mashed potatoes, are what I look forward to the most on their menu. When you go, try the mashed potatoes and try the soup!

Drink – We noticed Sea Smoke on the menu, told our server that we liked the style of this wine, and asked for a few recommendations. From his suggestions we went with a bottle of Spanish red for $45 that we enjoyed. Definitely more than we usually pay, but it was ok because “definitely more than we usually pay” is the subtitle of the “Special Occasion” dinner.

Service – The service is detail-oriented without being overly fussy; they will fold your napkin if you get up to go to the washroom, but they won’t hover by your table to awkwardly pull out your chair for you when you return. The service is also very personalized. After we sat down our server asked if I didn’t eat meat. Since I hadn’t said anything when making the reservation I looked at my Trusty Sidekick, wondering if he had called to mention this, but he hadn’t. Our server informed me that CH had filed this information after a previous dining experience I had there. He then informed me what options on the menu could and couldn’t be prepared without meat. The fact that CH keeps these kinds of dining preferences in their records is something that I haven’t experienced at any other restaurant.

Scene – The space is modern, but elegant. A good deal of the restaurant is enclosed by glass-walls, which makes the space feel very open and comfortable. A rich ebony wood dominates the color palate, which is accented by the colorful abstract paintings on the walls. One focal point of the restaurant is a limestone wall that separates the dining room and the kitchen, and allows you to peak in on the chefs. In the dining room, the tables are well spaced, and I find them to be a bit smaller in length than the typical table. These two things help create a more private, intimate dining experience whether you’re going on a date or celebrating with a close group of old friends. You’ll see lots of 20 and 30 somethings; I’ve never seen children here.

Dress – Dress up. I wore my nice (i.e. ridiculously expensive) pair of dark jeans, a lace blouse and a suit jacket. Go for a look that’s sophisticated and urban, not “formal.” Jackets are not required for men.

Cost – For food, drink, tax and tip, our bill was about $250, or $125/person: $80/per person for four courses plus $45 for wine and $40 for tip. Of course this is why you need a special occasion to go to Custom House!

written by hungry yuppie

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