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Black mussels at Howells & Hood

Game Changers

by Lisa Shames | Men's Book Chicago magazine | May 10, 2013

Shrimp banh mi, lobster shortcake with spicy sherry cream, steak tartare topped with a quail egg yolk, whole smoked pork shoulder carved tableside. Menu items from a trendy new restaurant? Hardly. These are just a few of the dishes found at a new breed of sports bars popping up all over Chicago.

In the not so distant past, if hunger struck while watching a game your options were limited to uninspired burgers, chicken wings doused in hot sauce and perhaps some fried calamari, whose provenance could be traced to the box it just came out of in the freezer.

Fortunately, these days it’s a much different story, with sports bars not only offering more varied menus, but the dishes on them most often include plenty of made-in-house ingredients.

Take, for instance, the recently opened Howells & Hood (435 N. Michigan Ave., 312.262.5310), a 17,300-square-foot spot, which also includes a sprawling outdoor patio. Even though the Tribune Tower space can seat some 700 diners, Executive Chef Scott Walton continues to tap into the hands-on style of cooking he became known for while at Markethouse in Streeterville.

That means in the kitchen, which is the size of a cruise ship galley, says Walton, whole pigs are butchered in-house for charcuterie, sausages and house-cured bacon. Five housemade mustards are currently on the menu. Plus, Walton is in the planning stages for a garden to grow veggies for the restaurant. “Can you imagine being in a sports bar and getting a fried mushroom basket with morels and chanterelles?” he says.

For the menu, Walton is conscious of not overcomplicating things—with 29 50- to 60-inch flat-screens, Howells & Hood is technically a sports bar after all—but that doesn’t mean cutting corners. “We offer little surprises that people don’t expect,” he says. For his fish and chips, for example, Walton created a malt vinegar powder so the fish keeps its crispy texture. Meatballs are made out of lamb from a local farm and served with housemade ricotta. And the restaurant’s 120 different beers on tap haven’t gone unnoticed by Walton, who incorporates those craft suds in plenty of his dishes.

Beer is also an important component at Public House (400 N. State St., 312.265.1240), where Executive Chef David Blonsky gets menu inspiration from the 100 or so brews the 10,000-square-foot River North sports bar offers. “The fun part becomes, ‘Let’s drink this beer and come up with dishes that’ll work well with it,’” he says. To help spread the beer love, Public House has six cicerones (“beer sommeliers”) on staff.

It was back in 2008 that Blonsky recalls first seeing an increase in upscale bars, first with handcrafted cocktails and later with local and artisan beers. That creativity sparked a thought process in the culinary world and helped drive the desire for upscale sports bars and the trend of incorporating high-end techniques into everyday food. Blonsky first tapped into this concept in 2009 at Bull & Bear and expanded on it with sister spot Public House a few years later. “We’ve impacted people’s views of what sports bars are capable of doing,” he says.

Public House’s menu takes a global view, with dishes ranging from mussel bowls and nachos topped with smoked cochinita-style pulled pork to grilled flatbreads. The housemade pretzel served with a beer and aged cheddar cheese fondue has earned signature status, and sparked a changing Friday special that allows the culinary team to get creative and keeps it interesting for the bar’s regulars. “We like to take classic dishes and amp them up with quality products and local ingredients and then serve them in a different manner,” says Blonsky.

Fine dining restaurant experience isn’t a requirement to be a chef at these newfangled sports bars, but that hasn’t stopped Jeffrey Arasi from his using his (Per Se, Bouchon, Aureole) at Municipal Bar + Dining Company (216 W. Ohio St., 312.951.2125). The River North gastro-pub keeps sports enthusiasts happy with 35 giant flat-screens (it doesn’t hurt, either, that one of its investors is retired All-Pro defensive end Simeon Rice), as well as a varied selection of beer. But then there are also craft cocktails and, should the need arise, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

And Arasi’s seasonal menu keeps it interesting, too. “I love taking simple bar food and elevating it,” he says. His chicken wings marinate in buttermilk for 24 hours before being dredged in tempura flour and tossed in the fryer. For his meatballs, a riff on his great-grandmother’s recipe, Arasi uses Angus beef and stuffs them with fresh mozzarella. In keeping with his scratch mentality, the restaurant’s freezer contains only two items, he says: ice cream and falafel patties, which he freezes to keep their shape after they’re made.

As expected, burgers still play a vital role at sports bars, but it’s not business as usual. At American Junkie (15 W. Illinois St., 312.239.0995) Executive Chef Kendal Duque uses his extensive culinary experience (Sepia, City Tavern, Everest) to give the staple an upgrade. That starts with using quality product, in this case, a premium dry-aged blend from NYC meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda. From there, says Duque, “I treat them as steaks.” That attention to detail hasn’t gone unnoticed by diners at the 17,000-square-foot, two-story bar and entertainment venue: The Frieda burger is their No. 1 selling dish.

Duque’s envelope pushing doesn’t stop there. He tops bone marrow with lobster ragout and a sweet onion and ginger jam. Tableside presentations are offered, too, including a smoked pork shoulder served with brioche buns, lettuce cups and fresh herbs.

When creating American Junkie’s menu, Duque took the space’s unique concept into consideration, including the 37 large-format TVs and rooftop lounge with a retractable roof. “For me, it’s about understanding the ambiance, the style of service and beverage program,” he says. “Everything as a whole has to be cohesive.”

Knowing your audience also comes into play at Park Tavern (1645 W. Jackson Blvd., 312.243.4276), a West Loop spot that has some 20 TVs for viewing various sporting events. Says VP of Culinary Jim Heflin, “It’s all about getting outside the box and making sure we have a good selection that people feel comfortable with.”

Part of that concept involves taking pub grub dishes and putting a creative spin on them. Animal Tots, a spin on the French-Canadian dish poutine, subs in tater tots for the traditional french fries and tops them with pulled pork, cheese curds, a fried egg and Bell’s Kalamazoo gravy. Ho-hum sandwiches such as grilled cheese become a dish the whole table can share: the foot-long beauty is made with cheddar, Chihuahua and pepper jack cheeses and candied applewood bacon.

And while smoking meats in-house and having an almost 100 percent scratch kitchen may be harder to execute, it’s worth it. Says Heflin, “At the end of the day, it’s more rewarding—for our chefs, who enjoy the creativity, and our guests.”