You voluntarily went to Chicago… in January…
Because I have a nine year-old daughter, who absolutely had to have one of these:
She had saved up her money (a lot of money), so we took her to Chicago to the American Girl Doll store to buy the doll, and do the Experience, including brunch in the store’s restaurant.
We’d have done dinner instead, but I hear the cocktail program there is terrible….
This, however, left me with a powerful thirst each evening. Fortune smiled upon me in this in the shape of Sable Kitchen & Bar. I’ve written before of my fondness for the Kimpton chain of boutiquey hotels. We chose one of their Chicago offerings, the Palomar, because it has a pool, only to find from my “legion” of cocktail geek twitter correspondents that adjoining its lobby was one of the most highly recommended bars in the city!
I was surprised to such a nice hotel bar, Bambara, in the Hotel Marlowe in Boston. I was amazed to find not just an above and beyond hotel bar, but an absolute top-shelf craft bar in the Palomar. Really. It rocks.
Sable is a restaurant as well. And a delicious one. Chef Heather Terhune (@HeatherTerhune) runs a smooth and elegant operation. The menu is an eclectic mix of range of dishes from sides such as duck fat french fries and all sorts of game entrees, to things like sweet corn creme brulee and bacon jam with toasted baguette points. They offer fried chicken on waffles for both dinner and weekend breakfast. Most of the larger dishes are offered in half-portions to facilitate a Tapas-like sharing experience.
And it is all really very good, though I’ll admit that while the bacon jam was as tasty as I expected, it had more of a novelty appeal for me. Still, you know if you go, you’ll order it, because, well, bacon jam.
Terhune is a contestant in the current season of Top Chef. I don’t watch the show myself, but I was told by some fellow guests that she is being given the “villain’s cut” by the show’s editors… poor girl. But that probably means she’ll be around til the end. Regardless, I don’t care. I’d eat at Sable often if I lived anywhere near.
But the bar….
The room is on a corner of the hotel, with solid glass walls on two sides of the very large space. The decor is modern, all dark leather and wood with metal accents. The bar itself is huge, about 40 feet long, with a massive liquor wall behind, boasting an impressive selection of all manner of spirits, rather than the 73 identical bottles of Grey Goose you find behind too many bars.
The bar has a design element that I’ve not really seen before and which works very well. Most of the bar is dark wood, and fronted by large, comfortable bar stools. But two segments of the bar, about 6-7 feet long each, are glowing blocks of white marble. There is no seating here and these spaces are for patron standing, rather than server access. For all its high-end nature, Sable is not an intimate environment. It is a hotel property after all, and well situated in downtown Chicago, so I’m imaging it is packed to the gills with power ties after regular workdays. It was plenty full every night we were there on a holiday weekend. (Yes, I had at least one drink there every night. Shut up.)
Crowds suck especially hard for a cocktail geek, as once the seats at the bar fill up, it is ordinarily impossible to interact with the bartenders without looming over or squeezing between other patrons. If they will put up with you trying. These blocks of standing room only at Sable’s bar go a long way to fixing this. Yes, they can fill up too, but people who are standing are more likely to make room happily, and the crowd in these segments naturally turns over much faster. The bottom line is, even on a busy night, you can still get to the bar staff.
And at Sable, getting to the bar staff is well worth the effort. Lead Dog Mike Ryan (@gastronautmike), who is currently sporting a lot more hair than in his picture on Sable’s website, is a star. A former chef, I’m guessing he just liked people too much to stay in the kitchen. Mike has a terrific resume, including Violet Hour; can carry on a cocktail geek conversation with the best of them; mixes drinks with care, craft, and style, while somehow also being swift; and has allegedly read this blog before. So what more can I say? Oh yeah, he also has what I consider the most important quality in any manager, bar or otherwise: He attracts good people.
I drank there every night, but Friday night Sable was the only place I drank. I spent a couple of hours bellied up to one of those glowing marble sections of the bar, trying to find the limits of former Pittsburgh bartending fixture, Fred Sarkis (@FredSarkis), and failing. This is how the Official Illustrator of the Cocktailosphere™ told me on Twitter to recognize Fred: “Reddish mustache, powerful build, probably wearing a vest. Moving swiftly & smoothly, making shakers beg for mercy.” Accurate but incomplete, as Fred has added a gigantic bartender’s beard since Pittsburgh.
I felt like being a pain in the ass, as usual, so I just kept describing elements I wanted in my drink and letting Fred decide what to make me. Everything he returned to me was not only essentially what I asked for, it was good too. He made me an Old-Fashioned with yellow chartreuse and cinnamon syrup that was particularly good.
I blush to say that I can’t remember the name of the bartender who served me Sunday before an early bedtime, but he too knew his drinks and his drink talk.
The cocktail menu is lovely, as you can see in the picture above, with a thick cover and page after page of about half original cocktails and a listing of spirits. The word “vodka” appears but twice. And while they put a certain cocktail on the menu, they have the puckish balls to refer to it by its proper name, the Kangaroo. The menu is also liberally sprinkled with a variety of excellent quotes of cocktail jokes and aphorisms. Many of these I had not read before, which is saying something. I was able to resist stealing one only because it is available online.
Sable is a wonderful cocktail bar, earning a spot in the overall top echelon of bars I’ve been to around the country. It bests a number I can think of with far wider reputations. It isn’t intimate, but the noise level is reasonable, and the crowd surprisingly manageable due to the innovative bar layout. There are no crazy high-end Ice Programs or Soda Programs, but I could perceive nary a corner cut either. Most importantly, should your fancy extend beyond the menu, the staff has the inventory and tools, and moreover the knowledge and inclination, to take you there. If you live in Chicago, you really need to explore Sable for yourself. And if you travel to the city, Sable alone is enough to put the Palomar on your short list of places to stay.