Among the many definitions of the word “refine” is this one: to make improvement by introducing subtleties or distinctions.
One of the newest restaurants to open in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, The Refinery, has taken that definition and applied it impressively to their food and drink menus. According to their website, “Executive Chef, Lawrence Letrero, and Pastry Chef, Hetty Arts, have crafted a tempting modern American menu following The Refinery’s concept of elevating the familiar through skillful introduction of subtleties and distinction.” What that means is that the food is based on many American bar/restaurant favorites. They have then taken those concepts and “refined” them with their own unique touches to create items that are both familiar and inventive at the same time.
Recently, I was invited to sample a number of items from The Refinery’s menu. The drink menu is not extensive, but it has great style and variety. While I was sampling the food menu, I was also treated to three of their better craft cocktails:
- Moscow Mule (Refinery vodka, lime, ginger beer, Angostura bitters, mint) Although not served in the “traditional” copper mug, this was a tremendously flavorful and refreshing cocktail. Even in the winter, the hint of summer freshness is a welcome treat.
- Paddy Bauler (High West Double Rye, dry vermouth, Benedictine, House Amer) Named for the 43rd Ward’s most (in)famous alderman Mathias “Paddy” Bauler this is a great take on the dry Manhattan concept, served in a rocks glass with one hand-chiseled ice cube. If you have never heard of Paddy Bauler, Google him or check out this article.
- Old Town Punch (Appleton V/X rum, cognac, peach brandy, lemon, nutmeg) Nothing says “tradition” like a good, old-fashioned punch recipe and this one surely fits the bill. On a cold wintry day, this is a perfect libation to warm you up and get you ready for the tasty food menu at The Refinery.
They have five other craft cocktails on the current menu along with a unique, eclectic selection of reasonably priced wines by the glass. Their beers on tap present and excellent selection with a number of regional brands, but their bottled beer selection is even more impressive. Try any of these paired with the Refinery Burger and you will have a superior comfort food moment.
Executive Chef Lawrence Letrero has created a varied but tremendously approachable menu. The savory menu is divided into snacks (small and perfect for a bar nosh), share (clearly, designed to be shared but enough for a moderately sized entree for one person), small (single portions that are good for one or a small share for two), and large (your “normal” entree size portion for a hungry diner).
On my visit, I sampled three of the savory menu options:
- The Refinery Burger (house ground short rib, bacon, aged cheddar, tomato relish, bread & butter pickles, aioli, brioche bun, frites) What makes this burger special is the hand-crafted quality. The lean meat is ground in-house with butter added (yes . . . butter). The relish and pickles are crafted in the kitchen, and the brioche bun is baked fresh daily. There’s nothing unusual here, but the combination of hand-crafted elements elevates this above most burgers.
- Duck Sausage (pistachio, currants, white beans, bacon) The fork-tender sausage itself has a hint of sweetness and a tiny hint of heat. The white beans are like a tasty cassoulet and (of course) bacon makes nearly everything better. This is a lovely wintertime dish to warm you up.
- Scallops (braised oxtail, kohlrabi, carrot, chili) Scallops are notoriously difficult to prepare well, but The Refinery clearly has some talented people in the kitchen. These were lightly seared but tender and succulent. The braised oxtail adds a layer of savory while the combination of kohlrabi and chili provide a subtle hint of both bitter and hot – a perfect pairing of flavors with the rich sweetness of the scallops.
Despite the high quality of the savory menu, make sure you don’t overindulge because you absolutely must save room for some dessert. Pastry Chef Hetty Arts has crafted a delectable selection, all based on more “traditional” desserts but with her special flair. I had the pleasure of sampling three of her signature desserts:
- Handmade Candies (turtle caramel apple, toasted maple marshmallow, malted chocolate macadamia bark, coconut chocolate bar) Chef Arts has taken a series of favorite candies and used them as inspiration for her inventions. Each one is small and you can get just one of them (if you’re in the mood for just a tiny bit) or you can get them all. Be sure to try the Turtle Caramel Apple for a tasty surprise.
- Warm Sticky Toffee Pudding (white chocolate cream, Asian pear, dulce de leche) Sticky Toffee Pudding is common in the UK, but this is the best I have ever tasted this side of the Atlantic. The dessert is served in a “deconstructed” fashion with each element separately arranged with great artistic flair. Of course, you can try everything individually but the best option is to take a moment to get a bit of each thing on your fork. The synergy of the flavors is amazing. This is one that I would come back for even if I weren’t there for a full meal.
- Mandarin Orange Creamsicle (cara cara orange sherbet, poppy seed crunch, crème fraiche) One of my favorite childhood treats was that orange push-up popsicle. This is Chef Arts’ inventive take on that flavor, but elevated in some very intriguing ways. The light pastry is topped with mandarin sorbet. Alongside that are portions of fresh citrus (mandarin orange, grapefruit, blood orange). Atop everything are light crunchy portion of a poppy seed crunch. Like the toffee pudding, this is one that works best if you take a moment to build the flavors on your fork and then taste them all at once. The poppy seed crunch is a perfect combination with the softness of the other elements. This is a light, fun, and ultimately filling dessert.
The Refinery is a bar and a restaurant, so even if you are only in the mood for a drink and a bar nosh, this is a great spot. In fact, for either a meal or a simple bar visit this is a perfect pre-show location if you’re headed to Second City, Zanies, or Red Orchid. After the show, stop in for a drink and a bite while you discuss the show!
The Refinery is located at 1209 North Wells Street, just north of Division and easily accessible from the Clark/Division redline stop. Learn more on their website, by calling them at 312.854.2970, by “liking” them on Facebook, or following them on Twitter.