High above Streeterville, on the 18th floor of a Northwestern Medical Center office building, sits GreenRiver , a luxe restaurant and bar that combines the magic pixie dust of NYC restaurant king Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events  with the Best Bar in the World team  (Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon of NYC’s The Dead Rabbit ). It’s a leap of faith to open a restaurant so far above foot traffic, but they built it, and the people have come.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to teach you a little something about the history of our fair city. Chicagoans are a (justifiably) proud lot, so that may be hard to hear. But as I sat raptly reading through the cocktail menu of GreenRiver, I realized I’ve got a lot to learn — about Chicago’s history and, it turns out, beverages in general.
Listen, if drinking one of Head Bartender Julia Momose’s (The Aviary ) spirited and creative concoctions meant I had to climb 18 flights of stairs to get there, I would find the strength. Momose is really more alchemist than bartender, deftly blending small-batch liquors with vegetal elements, unusual herbs and spices, house-made bitters and syrups and perfect ice in many forms. The gorgeous bar looks a bit like a chem lab, with beakers and drams of precious house-made ingredients.
About that cocktail menu: it’s arranged by key ingredient (barley, corn, agave, juniper, etc.), and within each are four drinks named for a person or event in Chicago’s history. Thus, under Agave, you’ll find the Gangster’s Paradise ($13), a slightly bitter, slightly sweet and very herbal concoction of Tequila Cabeza, Bols Genever, Campari, botrytis and bergamot. The provenance of each name is given as well; history lessons go down easier when there’s an adult beverage attached.
Small but Mighty
Not quite obscure enough for you? Try the Hinky Dink ($16), named for early 20th-century Chicago alderman Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, a tiny (5’1”) saloon owner who exchanged food for votes and was known to fraternize with prostitutes and gangsters. His namesake concoction combines Belvedere Polish Rye Vodka with beet, pistachio, horseradish, chipotle and lemon. Like Kenna, it’s got a bite.
GreenRiver is also featuring Highballs ($11 each) made from house-blended sodas like Japanese Plum Vinegar, Green Cardamom and Oolong Tea (sodas are also available separately, $6). Gin and tonic devotees will love the St. George Terroir and Fords Gins paired with grapefruit bitters and house-made tonic, while the more adventurous will head for the Yellow Chartreuse paired with arugula soda.
Not to Mention the Food …
Lest you think this is “merely” a bar, open Chef Aaron Lirette’s (Celeste , MK , Acadia ) menu and prepare to be wowed. To start, the Smoked Whitefish Tartine ($9) pairs beautifully with the cocktails, its smoky and creamy fish juxtaposed with the crispy toast beneath and the crunchy radish and celery on top.
The Hamachi Crudo ($14) is another study in contrasts, the impeccably fresh, silky Hamachi paired with blood orange sections and juice, hearts of palm rings, bitter Treviso leaves, olive oil and a judicious use of black truffle.
The omnipresent burrata is given special treatment here. Let’s face it, I’d eat burrata on a piece of shoe leather, but no need — Lirette’s Farro Salad ($11) pairs the creamy burrata with chewy farro, sweet grapes and crunchy toasted almonds. So many textures, so much for your mouth to consider. Mine was up to the task.
In the Name of Uni
The real stunner is the Saffron Spaghetti ($23), the tender house-made noodles a backdrop to the velvety uni and clam sauce, with a big buttery piece of uni on top for good measure. It’s a dish you will dream about — the brininess, the richness, all in perfect balance.
Continuing with the fish theme, the Ocean Trout ($23) is another lovely dish, the rosy flesh seared and served atop a yogurt sauce, the plate balanced by sweet and earthy roasted beets, sautéed cucumbers, salty trout roe and chopped pistachios.
Mentally prepare yourself for the price tag of the 30 oz. Slagel Family Farm Beef ($90), meant to be shared with your lucky tablemates. It’s served sliced off (but with!) the bone, sauced with marrow jus and plated with sautéed cippolini onions and chanterelle mushrooms. A small iron cocotte of impossibly rich potato purée accompanies the red meat bonanza; I dare you to leave a morsel. It’s one of the best steaks in the city.
The Sweet Ending
Pastry Chef Ji Hyun Yoon favors quality over quantity. There are three desserts on offer ($12 each), each showcasing her classical training filtered through a very modern take on flavor. The Winter Citrus dessert is a composed plate of citrus-forward chiboust (pastry cream lightened with beaten egg whites), agrumato lemon ice cream, citrus suprêmes and cranberry conserve encircled by a ring of kataifi (shredded filo dough).
Even better was the Chocolate dessert, an oblong of layered feuilletine and chocolate ganache topped with hazelnut praline and served over a sweet-tart passion fruit purée. This will assuage any chocolate craving you may have.
One quibble: the vaunted Danny Meyer service was not quite up to par on the evening of our visit. Dirty plates sat on the table for quite a while, and water glasses went unfilled while several servers and bus staff passed by our table oblivious to the situation. This would never have happened at Meyer’s flagship, the soon-to-be-shuttered Union Square Café, long a beacon of civility and deliciousness in NYC. But perhaps it was simply an off night. Our waiter was otherwise pleasant.
A lot has been written already about the gorgeous outdoor terrace, but sadly the colder weather will preclude those youthful after-work groups from their summer rituals. We were happy to sit in the peninsula of dining real estate behind the bar and gaze out over the city lights as we savored our meal — and our cocktails.
259 E. Erie St., 18th Floor
Bar Hours: Monday – Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. – midnight; Saturday, 5 p.m. – midnight
Kitchen Hours: Monday – Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., 5 – 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m., 5 – 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 – 11 p.m.
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