Will new Pump Room attract old buzz?

November 25, 2011 8:33:03 PM PST
Chicagoans don't take kindly to outsiders. Just look at "I Tre Merli" and Spago as examples. But with the Ambassador East's gut renovation, which included the Pump Room, the stakes were high.

It's not everyday one of our city's crown jewels goes under the knife.. The question is, will it still attract the buzz like it did in the 20th century?

The Public Hotel and The Pump Room under construction in the Gold Coast, architect Ian Schrager walked me through the space.

His task? Resurrect an iconic Chicago brand, known as much for its candid photos of visiting movie stars as anything else.

"It's balancing heritage with innovation; it's balancing doing something new with getting the people of the city irate if it's not done right, but that treachery is what interests me," Schrager said.

Went it came time to re-do the Pump Room, Schrager stayed in New York City, seeking the services of a well-known chef with a great track record, who could oversee the menu, help execute it, all based on the success of a restaurant in Union Square."

It is ABC Kitchen, tucked into the home furnishings building of the same name. It earned a James Beard Award last year for Best New Restaurant in the country, and it's helmed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who came to Chicago 12 years ago to open Vong.

"Vong was kind of an experience because you had to be in the mood for Thai food. I believe this is more like everyday food," Vongerichten said.

That means spinach pizzas, hearty veal meatballs tucked into bowtie pasta and fried chicken entrees, plus a number of flavorful "toasts," such as crab with lemon aioli.

"The essence is similiar; it's really farm-to-table, going back to ABC of cooking," he said

Vongerichten obviously can't be here full-time, so he's hired local boy Bradley Phillips to execute his vision. Many of those same dishes from New York are here as well: crab toast - check; spinach pizza - check; ditto for the fried chicken. But Vongerichten insists the menu here will reflect the markets.

"I believe as well 10 years ago you probably couldn't find the same product, at the farmer's market that you have today," Vongerichten said.

The pressure will be great for both chefs, but perhaps not nearly as much as it will be for Schrager. It's true, the transformation of the revered space has been dramatic and stunning. From the Library bar across the main lobby.. to the restaurant's new bar - where the grand piano used to be.. to the glowing, luminescent dining room itself. The famous headshots are still here, as is the symbolic telephone next to Booth One, where Kup used to hold court, but will the crowds return, now that there's a lot more competition in Chicago?

"It makes me anxious and apprehensive and gives me a modesty and I want to tiptoe around and find out what it is that the people of Chicago want," Schrager said. "Because if they don't embrace this, it can't be successful."

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