Fuel is hot stuff.
Enter to find flickering candles set aloft in contemporary metal pieces on red brick-colored walls. Here too are black leather lounge couches, a lustrous bar, a giant painting of the Chicago skyline.
Welcome to an upscale urban refuge says the decor at Fuel, from the sleek entrance to the back wall complete with a built-in private dining nook. Curl up, gourmands, say the toasty colors. It’s autumn, and we have a seasonal menu with dishes that will knock your barn boots off.
Eric Agren, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, Carrie, lived in the Windy City for six years before returning to his native Auburn. Their five-year-old restaurant is an anchor in lower downtown that is seeing a small influx of new restaurants and food specialty shops. (Fuel’s affiliate, Marche, opened last year, and offers weekday lunch and Monday-night dinner.)
We made reservations for a Friday night at this spot in the historic Lyceum Building.
A lovely garlic-studded batard (a French bread that offers more soft innards than a crusty baguette) arrived early and set the tone. So did the extensive and international wine list heavy with French choices, and our skilled server, who knew the list and menu nuances inside out. She should have — she’s been with the restaurant almost since its opening, a promising sign.
And she had sampled the night’s specials — another good indication of the eatery’s standards. If we wanted the pork belly, which executive chef Justin Oliver doesn’t prepare very often, she suggested we reserve it, as two portions remained. We took her advice.
We consumed more garlic, this time in a roasted soup that was smooth and aromatic, an ample autumn pleasure for $6. Soft and earthy escargots mingled with chorizo, tomatoes, mushrooms and more garlic for an appetizer “stew” that brought out the best of each ($8; these may not be the right choices for date night).
We needed a sharp knife to cut into a thick slab of crostini that held shredded duck confit over fig jam and melted brie on top, the whole thing smothered with large lettuce leaves. It was a delicious meld, but the presentation was unnecessarily difficult to manage ($7).
The ahi tuna entree ($23) came pan-seared ever so slightly, the rouge center at room temperature and meltingly soft. A parsnip puree, Swiss chard, and a brown butter, lemon and caper vinaigrette were worthy fall accoutrements.
Rich and crusty steak au poive ($25), prepared with cognac reduction and listed as a Fuel classic, deserves that billing. A mound of arugula added pepper flavor, but with the addition of a coquettish vinaigrette, it was its own leafy pleasure.
Two 2-inch-thick lamb chops nearly intimidated with their heft — this was Friday’s plat du jour. The meat, prepared sous vide and grilled, was delectable, and the dish tempered by a clean, cucumber/mint sauce made with Greek yogurt ($22). Roasted radishes added a spicy crunch, and basmati rice brought sweetness and texture.
No regrets on the special, either. The chef rolled the pork belly around a bouquet of herbs, rubbed the outside with a spice mixture then included star anise, and placed the succulent and fatty meat roll over a port wine reduction. That licorice-y, sweet and savory meld would make a pork belly lover of anyone. Completing the $26 plate was its geometric opposite: a high rectangle of chorizo-studded bread pudding, all smoky and herby.
Fuel’s bent is classic French cuisine, but the fare is more country than Paris. On the menu are “Julia Child’s classic beef bourguignon” and a balsamic braised pork shank. Yet it’s not all Franco. You’ll find scallops, salmon, Bolognese with pappardelle (Wednesday’s plate), shrimp and risotto (Thursday’s).
The pastry in our tarte tatin dessert stuck together as a pliable unit rather than crackling and flaking, but the peaches and the melting ice cream with candied bacon were ambrosia indeed. A dark chocolate flourless cake was appropriately dense and light at once (both $8). Its house-made ice cream topping bore a tinge of salutary smokiness from the mixture’s time spent cooling in an applewood smoker, an unusual step that subtly boosted the dessert’s chocolate flavor.
A couple of minor points kept the overall dining experience at Fuel on a high, earthly plane. A kitchen helper brought out entrees before our appetizer plates were cleared, which momentarily turned us diners into dish jugglers. The Caesar salad ($6), fresh, piquant and classic, nevertheless needed a better balance of greens to drizzle (less of the latter). Desserts did not quite deliver heaven on a plate.
But all things considered, we experienced a dinner that ranks among the top few of my last six months as a restaurant critic.
Finally, a word about Fuel’s economy. We had three appetizers, three glasses of wine, four entrees, two desserts and coffee for about $40 per person, excluding tip. For food of this quality, that’s not bad, mesdames and monsieurs. Pas du tout.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer.