Bentley Tavern: restaurant review
Ian Flowers's new restaurant on Southport in Lakeview tries to raise the bar on neighborhood dining.
Bentley Tavern, which opened on Southport in Lakeview in August, is one of the simplest but prettiest restaurants I’ve seen in some time. Tall arched French windows, a beautiful marble bar and dark green and white walls make the space feel like an elegant 19th-century tavern—it was actually once a brothel and accordion school, as well as the former site of Lucca’s Restaurant.
And that, unfortunately, is the only good thing I can say about Bentley Tavern.
Run by chef Ian Flowers, formerly of Lokal, South Water Kitchen and Atwood Cafe, the restaurant strives to provide chef-driven food in a neighborhood setting. There’s a seafood program, classic cocktails and lower-end entrees like a burger and chicken sandwich, plus meats and sides that cost upwards of $20 a plate. The menu consists of "progressive American bistro fare," which translates as crab cakes, a rack of lamb, charcuterie and a grilled cheese and tomato. In theory, Bentley Tavern could be just what the neighborhood needs—a place that’s good for both a burger and beer at the bar as well as a fancier night out. It’s too bad for neighborhood residents that it isn’t.
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On a recent visit, we were served crab cakes when we ordered crab claws and a brownie when we ordered bread pudding. The side of Brussels sprouts never made it to the table. On a second visit, our oysters were served two at a time, instead of all at once.
“I have no idea what’s going on down there,” our server said, as she brought us our second pair of oysters.
I’m not sure what’s going on in the kitchen either, but here’s what isn’t—effective use of seasoning. On my first visit, the cod, served with asiago risotto and chopped sweet peppers, was well-cooked but would have benefitted from a healthy shake of salt. The burger, topped with cheddar, lettuce, tomato and onion, was underseasoned and could have used a condiment beyond the ramekin of ketchup served with the barely warm fries. On my second visit, the half chicken was so salty that I was thirsty all night.
While pretty, presentations felt dated. First off, frisee is everywhere, from underneath the roasted beet appetizer, which was unappealingly topped with large, cold chunks of blue cheese, to underneath the raw items and plopped on top of the chicken. The arugula salad, with poached pears and candied walnuts, was a solid starter, save for the large, cold pieces of sliced Brie laid on top. While the items from the shells menu—oysters, large prawns and tiny crab claws—were fine, the shell-on prawns were topped with a glob of unremarkable cocktail sauce, citrus segments and a few sad caviar roe, making eating it a challenge. Thankfully, the oysters were clean and brimming with liquor, and they were served with a wedge of lemon and a dish of cocktail sauce.
Things aren’t much better behind the bar, which has a thoughtful selection of local and other spirits, but can’t do much with them. Even though cocktails are popular right now, not every restaurant should have a cocktail list. At Bentley Tavern, the list of classic cocktails and house drinks includes a perfectly fine sidecar. Beyond that, cocktails are weak and unbalanced, with not enough sugar or too much. Stick with wine or bottled beer, or, like I did after my third failed cocktail, water.
Once you add in long gaps in service where we sat with finished dishes in front of us and courses served without silverware, the bills, which topped $100, felt insulting. On both nights, the restaurant was barely a third full, which makes me think neighborhood residents have already realized that Bentley Tavern isn’t going to be their local spot.