Harvest on Huron was one of those places that seemed to get mentioned in passing but never a full-on review. I never went there, so don't look at me, but last night I did eat at its reincarnation, Allen's, in the same spot, same chef and an allegedly more modestly priced menu though, as you'll see, we did our best to get around that.
I read vague comments about HOH having colorful decor and too-loud music. If so, the restaurant has had a serious atmosphere change, probably more there than in the food, because it's a very handsome sort of L-shaped dining room nestled around a bar, all of which is done in classy, vaguely Arts-and-Craftsy woods. Beyond that I can't tell you much about the decor, as I ate outside and only saw it on the way to the restroom. Outside wasn't bad for River North, just the El rumbling by every few minutes.
Food is that American contemporary style where indigenous, self-proclaimed American ingredients get mixed with stuff. To me that always seems to mean cherries with meat. Foie gras (curiously, they didn't take the trouble to point out which American valley it surely came from) did indeed rest in a fruit reduction with cherries. Not bad but not as tightly focused in flavor as, say, a balsamic reduction (not that you want to have that ALL the time-- I get so tired of eating my foie gras the same old way) and the toast that came with it was, strangely, thick enough to be Texas toast which, as my dining companion said, seemed to be carrying this American thing a bit far. Too high a bread to foie gras ratio, I thought.
Oh, speaking of bread they deliver it with a little dish containing butter, maple butter-- which made it taste just like cinnamon sugar toast, not what I usually eat for dinner-- and a red pepper jelly. After some experimentation I determined that a thin film of butter accompanied by the red pepper jelly was hands down the way to go, and a nice innovation over the usual alternative of butter with a little red pepper mixed in.
On to entrees. I ordered a venison special, in a plum wine/red wine reduction. I should know better than to order anything involving plum wine. Maybe there's a way to cut it down where it isn't so syrupy, or maybe some people like it better than me, but I found it too strong even for venison. And the few fava beans dotting my otherwise maroon plate with incongruous green were lost, flavor-wise. Nor did I think the mashed potatoes whipped with goat cheese particularly went with the plummy plumminess of my dish. That said, the venison was very tender and well prepared, so it's not like I wasn't happy overall, but it was a dish of parts, not a whole.
My associate's duck, off the regular menu, I only got a taste of and can't really deconstruct, but the savory duck (some strong vegetable flavor underneath a wine-based sauce that was interesting) seemed very good and much more successful.
Maybe it was being outdoors, but service struck me as just a hair too casual. On the one hand, it was very friendly, which is nice in River North where attitude can be strong. But it took 3 bottles to get to our right wine (one of which involved a not terribly subtle attempt to upsell us to the wrong one) and attention got noticeably sparser as the small outside area got a little busier. I like to think it's a little more shipshape in the months where it's inside.
People who liked Harvest on Huron seemed to really like it. My luck of the draw, I think, meant that I didn't fall in love with its successor on the first try, but I can see the appeal of it as contemporary yet essentially comfortable and non-threatening food.
Allen's - The New American Cafe
217 W. Huron St.
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