I had a sense of enthusiasm before I got to Summer House. From the road as you drive by, it has a presence unlike few restaurants in town. Located in the heart of Lincoln Park and a complete teardown of the former Tilly’s, Lettuce Entertain You was coming to the neighborhood in a big way.
The afternoon before I went for my first visit, I was at lunch and ran in to a chef friend of mine. I wouldn’t describe him as an emotional guy, but when I told him where I was going, he GUSHED about the English Muffins. I then asked about the rest of the food and his response was a complete 180 - “eh.”
I had made a reservation and was sat right away in the bar. Apparently not everyone gets to eat in the dining room. The room transports you immediately with a tranquil summer feeling. Imagine if Crate and Barrel or Restoration Hardware opened a restaurant with the theme, summer.
Upon perusing the menu I was struck with the old adage – jack of all trades, master of none. This restaurant has EVERYTHING – tacos, meatloaf, very special sandwiches (new clue where the boring mundane one’s were), steak, fish, green leafy salads, burrata, scallops, ribs, pastas and a beach ball. You read that correctly, a FUCKING beach ball. If you have a beach ball on the menu, you better kill it with the food and service AND have bigger stones then the ball you’re selling. So if you have indecisive friends who never know what to order, this may be the place for you – it reminds me of Hub 51.
After navigating the menu, I ordered a Monti Cali to drink and to share the yuzu bay scallops, and sweet soy braised ribs to start. For the mains, my friend ordered the fish tacos and I got the BBQ glazed skate wing. As the drink arrived so did the ribs – the ribs came so fast it was awkward. The restaurant is at “standing room only” and all I can think of is they can plate food that fast! The ribs had a sweet flavor but were room temp. A minute or so later, again REALLY quickly, the scallops arrived and they were cold. For the life of me, I don’t know how you cook and plate food that quickly and have it come room temp to cold. Unless and I hate say it, the food was cooked and just getting plated as it was ordered.
The mains arrived together and my skate wing was room temp and the soba noodles were very cold so after 4 bites I had to stop. I couldn’t finish the dish. My friend’s surfer-style fish tacos arrived with a filet and some tortillas to build them yourself. Her fish was room temp and the tortillas came on a plate. So by taco two EVERYTHING was cold.
You can ask why didn’t I say something. Why should I have to? I can see if something isn’t ‘that’ hot but if it’s cold it makes me wonder what quality control of any kind is being done in the kitchen.
The dessert we ordered was a take on a lemon meringue. The dessert tasted good, finally something I could eat. We both enjoyed the dessert but were saddened such a beautiful room that was packed was being wasted with bad food.
It was with a heavy conscience I went a second time. I didn’t want to go but thought perhaps they had a bad night and I was being unreasonable. Reservation made, I arrived and again was seated in the bar but this time in a booth. HOW do you have to make a reservation to get in to the dining room?
I ordered a glass of wine and to start we were going to share the yuzu bay scallops, again, and the ahi tuna tostadas. For my entrée, I asked the server what do you recommend – we went with his suggestions of the roasted cauliflower, slow braised Berkshire pork shank, and the Dungeness crab chitarra.
This time the food didn’t come out lightning quick but again the bay scallops weren’t hot. I felt like Goldilocks but to be honest I would of loved to have something come out too hot. The ahi tuna tostadas had flavor but why are they on the menu with unseasonable ingredients like watermelon? The scallops have huge potential but if they can’t be executed then they should be taken off the menu.
The entrees came out and the chitarra was in a ‘very hot plate.’ The pasta was oddly dry because there was no luxurious, lobster emulsion. It was basically noodles with a dressing of sauce, crab and it needed salt – but it was hot. I took a bite of the roasted cauliflower and I couldn’t believe it was room temp. I didn’t take another bite. My pork shank was hot and tender with good flavor as you would expect. But, the plate was lessened by the cold root veg and yet, the roasted apples were hot. Mind boggling!
I sat there thinking – how is this place this crowded? Am I the only one ever getting room temp food? Are people willing to accept bad food in a nice room – sorry bar?
For the second trips dessert, we ordered the roasted pineapple crostata. This again was the highlight of the meal. The desserts are a solid course and it seems the only part of the kitchen that can execute food correctly.
Service at Summer House was friendly and never an issue. On my second visit, I had some car key issues. The valet and hostess team handled it very well and I applaud them for the patience on dealing with a rough situation.
I can’t recommend Summer House. If you want to go get the English Muffins my friend cooed about at the front bakery, they are very good. Yet, the food in the restaurant was below subpar largely because it was never hot or served correctly out of the kitchen. Because of these experiences, it makes me seriously consider if I’ll ever go to Stella Barra let alone any new Lettuce Entertain You restaurants. Fool me once (RPM) shame on you, fool me twice (Summer House) shame on me. There probably won’t ever be a third time. There are enough good restaurants in town that I’ll vote with my dining dollars and suggestions to friends. I won’t reward a large restaurant group that seems to be daring me to eat bad food in a hip environment.
Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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