As a young Chicago chef, Michael Foley opened his first restaurant in 1981, striking out in a neighborhood where few thought he could survive. Printer's Row--a rugged South Loop area once home to Chicago's bustling publishing houses and railroads--had been declared "condemned and blighted" by the city. Its lofts and warehouses were left to rot, its landmark buildings abandoned and decaying. None of the streetlights worked, recalls Foley, who at 26 had just completed an apprenticeship in Lyons, France. Fearing the worst, his father, a second-generation restaurateur, pressed Michael to name the new place after the neighborhood, "so people will know where to find it."
Today, those same lofts and warehouses contain upscale apartments and condos; and Chicagoans not only know where to find Foley's restaurant, but have good reason to dine there. As a longtime hot spot for the convention crowd, Printer's Row still boasts a clubby feel: the carpets are thick, the plush seats soft and cushy, and there's plenty of mahogany at the bar. A flashy design was not the intention when Foley renovated last year, giving the place a facelift with lithographs of the American marketplace, silk window shades, sculpted sills and a large mural of the old Dearborn Street station, circa 1927. "Our clients are conservative," he says. "Chic and trendy doesn't work for us here. Though we do like to experiment with the food."
Indeed, setting aside the stately decor, the food is anything but traditional. Since the early 1980s, this Midwestern outpost of American nouvelle cuisine has consistently won high marks for its innovative menus and fine regional foods and wines. With three-star ratings in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago magazine and excellent ratings in Zagat's, the restaurant remains a solid Chicago favorite, catering to anyone hankering for unusual, brightly flavored fare. In a city famous for grand steak houses, the menu at Printer's Row stands out for its off-kilter, adventurous offerings. Foley returned to the kitchen last year after an 11-year hiatus, in which he opened two other Chicago restaurants, which he has since sold, doing what he loves best: inventing new dishes.
One recent meal started with a heaping plate of tequila-and-lime-cured King salmon, served atop a mound of cold black beans, spiced with cumin and a cilantro pesto sauce. A swirl of crème fraîche smoothed out the tart flavors, making for a delightful entrée to the next course, the Printer's Row salad. Served with warm cheese toasts, the salad of spinach and a julienne of Belgian endives came coated with a light citrus balsamic vinaigrette. It was fresh, fragrant and ample in size.
The restaurant has long been famous for its wild game and, depending on the season, offers a variety of imaginatively prepared fowl--from partridge to quail, squab, grouse and the house specialty, venison. A recently sampled venison chop was roasted to perfection--pink and juicy on the inside, with a smoky, charred exterior. Basted with a sun-dried cherry and rosemary marmalade reduction, the sweet sauce contrasted brightly with the pungent, tender meat.
Portions at Printer's Row are hearty, and flavors bristle with subtle flourishes. Meats are seasoned with light herbs and citrusy rubs, and Asian ingredients such as miso, wasabi and soy appear frequently. "We try to have natural combinations of food that are easily digestible," says Foley. A roasted marlin, for instance, was coated with a horseradish-and-potato crust and cooked in a lemon-thyme butter sauce, accompanied by wasabi-spiced mashed potatoes. The portabello mushroom and Japanese eggplant "steak" was stir-fried with bok choy and comes with a Thai red curry sauce. American flavors were also represented: from Tex-Mex style tortilla-stuffed quail with corn and tasso ham to crayfish-and-andouille-sausage risotto with Tabasco butter.
Desserts were a treat, from tiramisu to oatmeal-strawberry tortesand a changing lineup of homemade ice creams and sorbets. The warm chocolate soufflé cake with vanilla ice cream capped a perfect meal. The restaurant's wine list is also a treasure, featuring more than 50 domestic reds, whites and rosés and a smaller, though solid, selectionof international reds. Napa Valley Cabernets are well chosen, as are a selection of Oregon and Virginia Pinot Noirs, Merlots and Zinfandels.
Cigar smoking isn't permitted in the main dining room; however, the separate barroom is cigar friendly and Foley arranges "cigar nights" for clients a few times a year.
Overall, Printer's Row racks up a round of applause.--Daren Fonda
Daren Fonda is a freelance writer based in New York City.
550 South Dearborn Street
Phone (312) 461-0780
Dinner $30, without wine Closed Sundays