“How many opportunities come up to do something like this?” asked executive chef Doug Psaltis, rhetorically. “There are only so many iconic dining rooms. This has to be one of the top-25 historic rooms in America.”
By “this,” Psaltis meant the venerable Pump Room, under his watch after Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises and Rich Melman (who ran the Pump Room for 22 of its nearly 80 years) signed a deal to manage the restaurant last year.
When word of the deal was announced, there was plenty of speculation whether this project would be a resurrection or a reinvention. Would Melman bring back the tuxedoed waiters? The original decor? Baked Alaska?
Booth One, as it’s now called (there was some uncertainty as to the rights to the Pump Room name), opened in November. Besides Psaltis and Melman pere, the managing partners include Molly Melman (daughter of Rich, and partner in several other Lettuce restaurants) and Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky (a veteran restaurateur perhaps best known for creating Spring restaurant).
To answer one question, no, the tuxedos have not returned; instead, waiters move about in tailored jackets with popped collars. The decor that Ian Shrager introduced when he reopened the Pump Room back in 2011 — especially that galaxy of planet-shaped ceiling lights — is largely intact, though Melman dialed down the wattage some and softened the look with a white-and-cream palette, floor-to-ceiling sheer drapes and dignified dark-wood tables (replacing Shrager’s bleached-oak tables). And there still is an official Booth One (the Pump Room table reserved for top celebrities), unoccupied on my visits but VIP-ready, equipped with its famed ivory rotary-dial phone and comically long cord that functions, I assume, as more of a figurative conversation piece (“You see that phone over there? Well, back in the day …”) than a literal one.
And of course, framed black-and-white photos of bygone to relatively recent celebs, all dining at the Pump Room, adorn the pillars that separate the dining room’s upper and lower levels. It’s the rare party that can walk past these groupings without stopping to play a little “Name that Star.” I know I can’t resist.
This blending of the old and new is also evident in Psaltis’ menu, which was developed in collaboration with former Trio and Tru chef Rick Tramonto (who has since moved on to other Lettuce projects). It’s a pretty hefty menu, offering a dozen starters/salads and another dozen entrees, plus three sized-for-two (or more) options.
Scan through the pages, and you’ll find such nods to the past as steak Diane, seven-vegetable salad, salmon asiatique and curried chicken brochette. But you’ll also spot dishes the old Pump Room never would have touched — snapper ceviche and tuna sashimi, for instance — and modern updates (the crab Louie salad is now a lobster Louie and comes with jalapeno crema) that might have been viewed as sacrilege years ago.
Mostly, though, what you see are classics, dishes that have been on fine-dining menus for 50 years or more. Chicken paillard. Beef Wellington. Rack of lamb. Dover sole. And plenty of luxury, including formal caviar service ($105), a glorious seafood platter ($75) and a 36-ounce cote de boeuf ($105) with black-truffle bearnaise.
Start with the Japanese snapper ceviche, served in tight, curled pieces, several of which are adorned with sea urchin, all gathered above a gentle aji amarillo that doesn’t fight the fish. Considering the richness that is to follow, this pristine composition tastes like innocence.
Move on to a pair of chef inspirations. Lobster cappuccino traces its roots to a like-named dish that Rick Tramonto offered at Trio and Tru; its highlight was the ethereal foam that conveyed an impossible amount of lobster flavor. The Booth One version is a bit more down to earth, more of a creamy and satisfying veloute that, bolstered with tomato, cognac and cream, and finished with espelette pepper powder, is immensely satisfying.
Caesar Salad a la Sir Graham is a nod to chef Graham Elliot, whose eponymous and bygone restaurant featured a GE Caesar highlighted by “Twinkie croutons,” toasted brioche cuboids injected with Parmesan cheese. The Sir Graham version employs a three-cheese blend of mascarpone, pecorino and Parmesan, but the concept remains the same.
I’d make room for the black-truffle scrambled eggs. Making perfectly soft, scrambled eggs is trickier than most people think, and these eggs, with decadent touches of black truffle and shredded king crabmeat, have a mouthfeel that rivals pommes puree. On the other end of the textural spectrum, there’s a fine salad of golden beets, quinoa and watercress, piled high over whipped yogurt.
Among entrees, Psaltis shows nice restraint with the salmon asiatique, which could have been bombarded with ginger and lemongrass but instead is a good-size fillet seasoned judiciously with sesame, white miso, mirin and lime. Thickly sliced tuna au poivre is irresistible, its charred, peppered edges giving way to raw centers, served with airy pommes souffles and a shallot-heavy bearnaise sauce. Beef Wellington, abetted by a rich mushroom bordelaise sauce, is without flaw.
One intended menu signature is the crispy duck a la Booth One. It checks in at a daunting $33.95 and consists of two duck legs with seasonal fruits and vegetables. But before you rise in outrage, these are massive duck drumsticks (the reassembled duck might frighten me) with perfectly crispy exteriors and fork-tender insides. Matched to a mustard-laced apple sauce, with root vegetables and diced apples, the dish carries an appealing earthiness that seems ideal for winter weather.
One dish I liked very much was the stripped-down roast chicken frites. Three pieces of well-cooked chicken stand vertically on a large white platter, accompanied only by golden-brown Kennebec-potato fries, plus some roasting jus and bearnaise sauce on the side. Perfect, let’s say, for those looking to under-indulge.
Pastry chef Andrea Coté, whose resume includes work at Per Se and GT Fish & Oyster, offers a lineup of simple-sounding desserts that wow you with execution. Profiteroles benefit from spiced Seckel pear and hot fudge. (The side pitcher of extra sauce is a perfect service touch.) The Original Cheesecake Circa 1954 might not really be from the original recipe (even Melman’s long career doesn’t go back that far), but it’s a fine cheesecake, especially with the accompanying sour-cherry compote.
Mrs. Hsing’s Wonderful Lemon Meringue Napoleon is a nod to Psaltis’ wife, Hsing Chen, who suggested this layered interpretation of a lemon-meringue pie (with a torched meringue topping that recalls the Pump Room’s baked Alaska), and it’s as beautiful as it tastes. The orange creme caramel, accented with burnt-orange confit, is a keeper, and the chocolate-coconut cake, layering coconut mousse with devil’s food cake and shredded coconut, is gorgeous.
Booth One has a fine wine list (with Kim-Drohomyrecky as general manager, I expected no less) and a very attractive cocktail program, devised by Brandon Phillips and Derek Alexander. Like the rest of Booth One, the cocktails span generations, embracing classic drinks, nods to celebrities (a Sophia Loren prosecco cocktail, a bourbon-based Burt Reynolds), modern pours (the gin-and-rum Her Majesty’s Holiday leaves me stirred but unshaken) and the reanimated corpses of such post-prandial confections as the Grasshopper and Banana Banshee.
Booth One is no place for bargain hunters, but the Pump Room never was. Attentive and personal service, beautiful surroundings and the undeniable aura of history, however, do a fine job of meeting expectations.
1301 N. State Parkway
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner daily, lunch Monday to Friday, brunch to come
Prices: Entrees $21.95-$42.95
Other: Valet parking
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.