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Order Everything You Can Get Your Hands On At Innovative Cocktail Bar GreenRiver

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 30, 2015 3:00PM

A selection of cocktails at GreenRiver. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Chicago’s cocktail geeks were all aflame when it was announced that Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, owners of what Tales of the Cocktail Declared declared “The World's Best Bar,” the Dead Rabbit in New York City, were bringing their particular brand of cocktail magic to Chicago. GreenRiver has been open just a couple of weeks, and it seems the over-the-top accolades weren’t misplaced. GreenRiver undeniably has some of the best cocktails in the city, though the restaurant as a whole still has some kinks to work through.

GreenRiver's name is inspired by the Irish heritage of the owners and Chicago's rich Irish history, and bits of they city's storied Irish past permeate the menu. In fact, you could get a pretty good education on the history of Chicago just by reading the voluminous cocktail list, where each drink is inspired by a famous Irish-American historical figure whose biography is hidden under a fold. The space itself, a risky choice that will hopefully pay off once summer returns to the city, is located on the 18th floor of the 259 E. Erie St. location of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The patio at GreenRiver. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Why do I say it’s a risky choice? Well, there’s no exterior signage, and no indication when I walk through the revolving doors (after a few wrong turns in the meandering Streeterville hospital complex) that I can get a cocktail here, as well as (presumably) surgery and a flu shot. Security guards give me strange looks as I eye the lobby, and I breathe a quiet sigh of relief as I finally spot a small “GR” on the wall next to an elevator bank.

All of the tension disappears when I step off the elevator and walk down a long, darkened hallway. The space itself resembles what I, in my fantasy mind, think a fancy airport club in Dubai might look like: low lighting, a long beautiful bar, a couple of levels separated by glass, and discrete design touches. The patio, a huge wraparound corner job high in the sky over Streeterville, is the real star, but the weather was too cold during my visit to tempt me.

I’m not kidding when I say that you could read this amazing cocktail menu like a book. If I ever dine alone at GreenRiver, I may do just that, but right now, I quickly page through the menu, which is arranged by grain, rather than by type of alcohol. If you’re a spirits geek, this is kind of fun, though I can see how it might get overwhelming. The drinks are filled with weird, often-savory ingredients, and the server actually tries to warn me off a particular drink because it’s “pretty strange.”

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The Coal Miner's Daughter at GreenRiver. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Screw that; I decided I was up for the adventure. That strange drink was the “Peace Frog,” named for Jane Addams ($19), and it may be the most confusing drink I’ve ever had, combining rhum vieux agricole, cynar, sherry, arrack, trumpet mushrooms (!) and miring, a kind of Japanese soy sauce. It took me aback at first, but was perfectly balanced and finished with a savory touch that makes it uniquely suited to pair with food. At least here, you're not paying for the view, but for genuinely interesting drinks.

The Alderman at GreenRiver. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Every other drink I tried was equally perfect. The Alderman ($13), which mixed rye, irish whiskey, sherry, averna, coffee and lemon, was smooth and silky—the perfect first drink after a long day. The Meat Packer ($16), on the "Juniper" menu page, combined genever, St. Germaine, and two ingredients that I'd never even heard of before, Schönauer Apfel and Salers Gentiane, for a light but surprisingly funky cocktail (given its light color, I expected something more simplistic).

Detail of the Meat Packer. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

GreenRiver's bar staff knows how to mix drinks to perfection, and I won’t be satisfied until I’ve tried them all. Bucking the clunky vintage glassware trend, each drink is served in delicate modern vessels which, upon closer inspection, are barely etched with intricate patterns—a sign of the attention to detail evident in everything coming out of this bar.

Unfortunately, GreenRiver isn’t quite sure how to serve these amazing drinks (or anything else, for that matter). Despite the fact that the restaurant was 2/3 empty during my visit, it took more than 30 minutes after I was seated (I timed it) for anyone to give me a glass of water or take my order, and then it only happened because my dining companion practically tugged on a passing server’s sleeve. Rather than taking our order immediately, that server, flustered, went off to find out what happened, came back with an awkward explanation, still didn’t take our order, and eventually our actual server looped over to the table.

They comped the first round of drinks to recompense us for the wait, but then brought out the appetizers at inconsistent times and brought my dining companion the wrong entrée. Rather than replacing it when we asked, they claimed they were out of what she originally ordered—but no one thought to mention this before it hit the table? While it’s admittedly only been open for a short while, someone at GreenRiver needs to retrain the staff, stat.

Diver Scallops. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Luckily, the food, when it eventually arrived, was pretty much perfect, which was more than I was expecting. It’s hard to find good food with a view, and when a spot devotes this much energy to cocktailing, I worry that their kitchen might take second place.

Uni Spaghetti. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Scallops with plum and celery come out perfectly seared, a smoked whitefish toast with egg and radish may be my favorite new bar appetizer in the entire city, and the saffron spaghetti with uni is a savory, salty mess, an incongruous rush of saltwater in your face when you’re just steps from Lake Michigan. And my favorite dish may have been, improbably, the carrot soup with brussels sprouts and balsamic, a perfect taste of fall. Rather than fresh garden carrots, this soup tastes like those perfect carrots that came out of the bottom of your mom's pot roast.

Farro salad with buratta. Photo by Kaitlyn McQuaid.

Don’t just do drinks at GreenRiver—go for dinner, and order everything you can get your hands on. But if you want to actually receive what you ordered, you might want to wait a few more weeks for them to get their act together.