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Quay plays it smart with an approachable menu, creative cuisine

Tarte flambe flatbread Quay 465 E. Illinois St. Tuesday August 23 2011 Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Tarte flambe flatbread at Quay, 465 E. Illinois St., Tuesday, August 23, 2011, in Chicago | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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QUAY ★★★

465 E. Illinois; (312) 981-8400;

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m; Sunday-Friday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday.

Price: appetizers and salads, $6-$13; entrees $14-$25; steaks and chops $24-$39; desserts $8

Try: clam chowder, tarte flambe flatbread, Quay fish fry, vegetarian ravioli, Key lime tart, s’mores.

Wheels: valet available; wheelchair accessible

In a bite: A quay is a pier, a wharf, and Quay, which rolls from East Illinois Street clear over to the Ogden slip of the Chicago River, has it covered, from the contemporary American menu (steaks, chops, fish, raw bar) to the first-class seating arrangement overlooking the river. Modern, upbeat, lively, a nice addition to the Streeterville dining scene. Service was efficient and enthusiastic. Lunch with children would be fine, but the evening is more for adults. Reservations recommended.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;
★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;
★ Good; Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:42AM

And so now we have Quay in the space once occupied by a restaurant named de la Costa. Never heard of de la Costa? You’re not alone. It didn’t last long enough to make the restaurant guidebooks.

Quay is playing it smart. The menu — steaks, chops, fish — is very approachable and quite affordable. And the layout, after a bit of restyling, allows for casual dining near the main entrance (where one of the bars stretches out). Then the space flows back from Illinois Street to the Ogden slip of the Chicago River, so pick the atmosphere that suits your mood. (The tables overlooking the river are prime whether for lunch or late-night romantic dining.) All that should help revive this location, which is in an area (on the route to Navy Pier and down the street from the AMC movie complex) where a decent restaurant is sorely needed.

The makeup of the menu suggests “back to the basics,” leading off with something as simple as an excellent clam chowder, which had all the right stuff (including lots of clams) and flavor (not thickened to the point of absurdity).

And then into another starter that seems to be taking center stage — flatbread — a k a toned-down pizza. The “tarte flambe flatbread” was excellent. The crust was crispy yet had texture, so it was not like eating dressed-up crackers. The toppings were smoked applewood bacon, wilted onions and fromage blanc, a rich cow’s milk with a softness, flavor and texture that make basic mozzarella pale in comparison.

Once into the entrees, we went all out for the Quay fish fry, a mixed fish fry of sorts, that included fillets of beer-battered cod, shrimp and panko-coated scallops. This crispy-fried melange got topped with a haystack of shoestring fries. Ah, too bad that the fries spent too much time in the fryer, which took away from the idea and goodness of this dish. Tweaking is needed with the fries. But the accompaniments — excellent coleslaw, classic cocktail and tartar sauces — made up for the potato shortcomings.

Even though the idea of “vegetarian ravioli” put me off a bit, I had to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. The impressive presentation separated them a few degrees from the standard. The vegetarian idea behind this pasta dish was that the flavor and texture were pumped up with a lush, basil-accented tomato fondue (sauce of a sort), herbs, chives and shaved Pecorino cheese. In all a very delicious dish.

The kitchen has a way of adding indulgence without going over the top. Charred rapini, which I ordered as a side to go with the ravioli, was just that — charred, crunchy and most enjoyable.

The lunch menu offers some of the same dishes as the dinner menu, with the addition of a few more sandwiches. The “surf and turf slider trio,” for example, was just that: one was a basic burger with a melt of Wisconsin sharp Cheddar, the second one meaty short ribs, and the third, a “surf” slider “lobster salad” (not a lobster roll per se) that could have used a lot more lobster and less “salad.” But $13 for that trio was a good price. (Note: the makeup of this trio changes — bread, add-ons — on the dinner menu.

Two desserts were tried, two enjoyed. The “upside-down Key lime tart” was in that culinary vein known as “deconstructed,” so you wouldn’t recognize it until you got into it. Then the tang, the crumble, and the texture kicks in. And the s’mores confection was all it should be and s’more, the toasted marshmallow, chocolate cake, ganache and caramel sauce all added up to pure indulgence.

Pat Bruno is a local free-lance critic and author. Listen to Pat Bruno talk about food and wine at 6:23 and 10:23 p.m. Tuesdays and 7:53 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays on WBBM News Radio AM (780) and FM (105.9).

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