By AARON GETTINGER
There is a lot to like about Mesler, the restaurant in the Sophy Hotel.
Its design is as shiny and new as the Sophy: a linear fireplace sets a cheerful and modish scene in the lounge that opens to the lobby, where guests relaxed with cocktails and appetizers. The dining room feels urbane and distinctly Chicagoan, all right angles and modern. While not exactly quiet, the noise level makes conversation easy.
Mesler’s theme is literary: There’s a big stained-glass piece of an abstract open book and bookshelves on the walls. The menu has definitions as if it were a dictionary. The staff and service were helpful and accommodating.
Cocktails were fine: a “Rob Roy Perfection” that was basically a Scotch Manhattan with hints of banana, cherry and vanilla ($10) and a “Pulverization Destination,” aka a mint julep with orange bitters with rightly chipped ice ($10). There are also nonalcoholic options, and the wine and beer lists are long and diverse.
There are nearly as many appetizer and salad options as there are entrees. The crab cake was excellent, its lime-accented remoulade a fine complement. The “Mesler greens” with punchy, peppery arugula and cheese from Wisconsin and the pureed squash-apple soup enlivened by crunchy pumpkin seeds were very good and forthrightly seasonal — not a small feat for produce-highlighting dishes in midwinter.
Dinner options are divided into pastas, steaks and other entrees plus one or two nightly specials. One recent special was sea bass, skin beautifully seared to a crispy crunch; the firm white flesh moist and flavorful, served with fingerling potatoes, green beans and wilted greens.
The pork porterhouse “au poivre,” served with house-made giardiniera, arrived studded with pepper, but lacked the seared, spicy crust expected. Initially, it seemed a brinier version of the giardiniera would be a better match, but the chef’s pleasantly understated and lightly pickled take won me over. Still, whether jicama has any business being included in Chicago’s favorite relish is up to you, but it added a juicy crunch.
Only the nightly specials come with side dishes, so if you want potatoes with your meat, expect to pay extra.
Among the pastas, the Seafood Casarecce was loaded with shrimp and lobster bathed in a bright, garlicy sauce and topped with spicy bread crumbs to provide a delightful textural contrast. Unfortunately, the Sausage Rigatoni didn’t measure up — the sauce lacked both flavor and body; freshly ground pepper and grated parmesan would have awakened this rather bland offering.
Seasonal tarts are Mesler’s trademark dessert, according to the waiter, and the apple tart was superb. The crust was flakey and rich with butter, the apple slices flavorful, and the scoop of vanilla ice cream topped caramel sauce was excellent. The chocolate and salted caramel homemade ice creams are able siblings to the vanilla, smooth and rich with butter. Our ice creams were served top of fresh blueberries and strawberries, ironic this time of year, but a treat and, at $3, a gilded lily.
A cautionary note: If you use the Sophy’s parking, don’t linger over dinner. The first two hours are $4; more than two hours and the price jumps to $16. We stayed eight minutes over, and there was no wiggle room. If Mesler aspires to be a fine dining destination – and its prices indicate that it does – the parking policy needs to be adjusted.
(Other Herald staff members contributed to this article.)
Mesler Kitchen, 1411 E. 53rd St. (in the Sophy Hotel); 773-289-1005; lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner: Mon – Thur; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Fri, Sat: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sun.