The transformation was stunning.
Contaminated soil forced Don Halls legendary Old Gas House to remodel, and it triggered a metamorphosis from rustic family eatery to an amazing upscale place that rivals its neighbor, Club Soda, in terms of looks.
The dated Gas House furnishings have been retired; including the chuck wagon salad bar, which I am told now serves as a flower box in one of the Halls backyards. The original maple floor supports modern furniture, including a couple of hip circular- and horseshoe-shaped booths, and the walls were stripped – exposing the old bricks on which working gas lamps provide a subtle glow to the dining room. Even the servers got a makeover with their neatly pressed all-black uniforms adding a level of sophistication.
But the most impressive makeover happened to the menu. The German chocolate cake and prime rib were the only Halls staples I recognized on the menu, which now features cuisine one might not necessarily associate with the chain – things like hearts of palm salad, Australian lobster tail and filet Oscar.
The commitment to being an upscale steakhouse was represented perfectly in the 16-ounce, bone-in New York strip. The steak was seared perfectly to add a nice charred flavor to the pink, juicy, tender beef. I selected the bleu and bacon crust for this steak, but it was forgotten. It proved to be a good oversight, however, as the huge dollop of parsley-sprinkled butter melting over the top of the steak seasoned it perfectly and made it even more sumptuous. That steak was recently removed from the menu, but a 12-ounce boneless strip remains.
The hearts of palm salad that preceded the steak was up to par and proved to be better than the iceberg wedge or house salad. The hearts of palm featured a diverse mix of greens containing cabbage, spinach and radicchio, along with the signature ingredient, artichoke hearts, chopped cucumbers and tomatoes. The artichoke and palm hearts were evident in every bite, making it texturally pleasing, and the balsamic vinaigrette added just the right zing. The wedge was OK with crispy pieces of fresh high-quality bacon, red onion and split cherry tomatoes, but it was missing its bleu cheese crumbles. The house had the same nice greens as the hearts of palm but was rather boring with just tomato, eggs and croutons and no cheese.
The complimentary sourdough bread was the best appetizer by far. These small loaves are baked on site and served piping hot. The outer crust is crisp and has a wonderful salt-and-pepper seasoning, and the inside is moist and somewhat doughy.
The appetizers I sampled – crab cakes and filet mignon sliders – were not worth filling up on compared to the bread. The sliders contained paper-thin slivers of filet that were completely masked by the fried onion and bleu cheese toppings. The red chili aioli also was pretty much undetectable. The crab cakes were flat and more mealy than meaty. They arrived resting on an andouille corn hash that was interesting but out of place. The spicy sausage didnt really go with the crab, but the corn, carrot, cucumber and red pepper were fresh and tasty. I also had a hard time considering it hash since it contained no potato.
The Old Gas Houses Chicago burger is one of the most impressive burgers in town. This thick, 10-ounce burger was pink and rare, just as I requested, and its juices were absorbed by the bottom of the onion roll. I chose white American cheese, bacon and red peppers as my three toppings from a list of 11. The bacon was great, just as fresh and flavorful as it was on the wedge salad; the cheese was creamy; and the sweet peppers were falling out all over my plate. The pit beans I chose on the side were a nice match with the hearty burger as its trio of beans was enveloped in a thick, smoky-sweet sauce.
I also loved the side of asparagus I paired my steak with as it was blanketed in a creamy, rich hollandaise with a wonderful light, lemony finish. However, the other new big sharable side dish I ordered, green beans with bacon and onion, was never brought to the table.
The only failure in terms of entrées was the sesame-crusted tuna. The fish was super fresh and mild, was seared to the correct doneness and its edges were covered in black sesame seeds. There was wasabi dotting the plate, but the cabbage and carrot slaw the tuna rested on was rather dry and underdressed. The lack of ginger-soy dressing on the slaw ruined the dish and had me wishing I had a bottle of soy sauce. I also did not detect any candied ginger, which was included on the menus ingredient list.
My upscale experience ended with my servers presenting the dessert tray. The newest creation was the raspberry-chocolate cheesecake, which was actually a pair of cakes – New York cheesecake on the lower layer and a rich dark chocolate cake with a sugary chocolate icing on top. Raspberry sauce was sandwiched between the two layers and drizzled over the top along with chocolate syrup. It was tasty and interesting and would have been a great dessert to share.
The bread pudding was the star of the desserts, however. This heavy dessert was covered with warm caramel sauce and flanked by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The custard was evenly distributed, making each bite rich and delightful.
Restaurant: Don Halls Old Gas House
Address: 305 E. Superior St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Cuisine: Steak and seafood
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: Full bar
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Kid-friendly: Yes, but more of an adult atmosphere
Menu: Crab cakes ($9), filet mignon sliders ($2 each or 5 for $9); salad starters ($6), Chicago burger ($8), sesame-crusted tuna ($9), bread pudding ($4.25), raspberry-chocolate cheesecake ($4.50)
Food: ** 1/2 (3-star maximum);
atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).