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Downtown Review: Martini Park

By Amelia Levin in Food on Jul 17, 2007 6:10PM


Let’s just get one thing straight: unless you have your own personal money tree, you don’t go to Martini Park to get rollicking drunk. And it’s easy, from one step in the door, or from reading all the recent hub and bub about the place, to assume it’s just another trendy bar/lounge, packed with scenesters and socialites, serving expensive drinks and food. In a way, yes, it is. But looking at it from another angle, the new hotspot in the heart of the Ontario and Clark strip of River North actually makes for a nice, sophisticated place to enjoy a really well-made martini and some tasty apps and a relaxed ambiance for hearing some live tunes.

That’s the case during the week, at least. Park’s soft opening party last Thursday left little space to be had, while according to word-of-mouth, there was even a bit of a line outside the door last Friday and Saturday. Of course, you say. But, seriously, in a few months the place will be sure to “calm down,” and, as was said earlier, there are always those weekday happy-hours and nights.

2007_07_MartiniPark.JPGService here was impeccable on our visit. While the door manager politely informed us of a no-shorts, no-open-toed-shoes for men rule to us (yawn), it was a Monday after all, and he said we looked like nice people, so he allowed us to come in with a smile on his face. Not the greatest way to make a first impression (uh hem, pretension?), but the genuine graciousness made up for it, and hey, we’re trying to keep an open mind here. All throughout the night, a number of staff members remained very attentive, and asked us about our experience, including our bartender for the night, Ryan, who had a friendly smile, a solid knowledge of the drink and food menu, and checked in with us frequently, but also knew when to leave us alone.

Also impeccable was the décor. Lavish, yet tasteful and chic, somebody clearly thought this one through, and there was a lot of space to fill with three full bars in separate “rooms,” a large, open dining space with hi-top tables, plus an outdoor patio and a smoking terrace (Martini Park is no smoking, which of course either incites rage or presents itself as a refreshing change). Some of the amenities: exposed, gray-colored stone walls and poles; sleek, dark wood fixtures; crushed, orange-colored, acrylic bar countertops ; geometric light fixtures sending off warm hues; floor to ceiling, mirror and glass shelving stacked with imported vodka bottles; a stage with a live band which plays from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Glass doors to the terrace with more stone detailing allowed the summer breeze to circulate through the space. It felt more like L.A. than Chicago. Actually, the other location is in suburban Dallas.

Of course, you can’t go to a place with “martini” in the name and not get such a drink. This Chicagoist writer happens to be a big fan of the cocktail a la Sex and the City, but at $10 to $12 a pop here, maybe … we’ll just order one or two. We tried the “Pair in the Park” martini with Grey Goose La Poire vodka, William pear puree, Moet Nectar Imperial, lime juice and simple syrup. It tasted as fancy as it sounds — truly delicious, refreshing, and like a real pear from the farmer’s market, garnished with a pretty slice of just that. The traditional Bombay Sapphire gin martini, shaken, not stirred, was strong, crisp, and incited feelings of Bond-ness. Accompanied by a small plate of Roquefort-stuffed olives, and you’ll feel like a million bucks. Speaking of money, though, watch out — those olives will cost you $3 for the blue, or $5.95 for the string of six lobster-stuffed olives we also had to try, but sadly, which turned out to be a bit on the dry, flavorless side.

2007_07_MartiniPark4.JPGOther martini options include your typical fruity and fun ones — apple, mango, cucumber, chocolate, but all dressed up with some cool mix-ins. A slew of specialty cocktails took up the other side of the menu, from the intriguing grapefruit caipirinha, to the traditional bloody Mary and mojito.

Spotting Kobe beef sliders on the menu, that was an easy choice. Unfortunately, they were nothing special, tasting just like any old hamburger with boring yellow mustard and a pickle. Plus they were a tad on the small side. Better were the mac n cheese “stix” — non-greasy, fried sticks of creamy, sharp cheesy-pasta goodness, these suckers were sinfully rich, especially when dipped in the side of extra fondue-style cheese, and filled us up quick. Next time we might try the surf or turf nachos with char-grilled filet mignon or Maine Lobster tail, or one of the skewers, maybe the Thai-style chicken satay.

2007_07_MartiniPark3.JPGWe sat amongst a generally beautiful and well-dressed crowd in their late twenties through forties with a good mix of neighborhood, style, attitude, and ethnicity. Overall, everyone was laid back, well-behaved, and checking each other out in a more subtle vs. staring way.

In all, we viewed Martini Park, at least based on this visit, as purely a destination spot for an after-work drink, a date, or a more “special” outing with some friends. It’s definitely not your neighborhood joint where you can sling back a few, or several. Still, it’s great for a stiff, tasty martini, some quick eats, some good tunes (we heard Mellencamp, Gin Blossoms and other classics from the nineties), and some awesome people watching, of course.

Martini Park, 312-640-0577, 312-640-0690, located at 151 W. Erie St., is open Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m., and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. Closed Sunday.

Note: This is the first review covering the Downtown area (Loop, West Loop, River North, Streeterville). Chicagoist will continue to cover the North Side, Northwest Side, and South Sides as it has in the past.