Every time a restaurant closes in Calhoun Square — at least post-Figlio — those "doomed real estate" rumors start flying and everyone wonders what suburban-lite chain might move in next. It happened with Il Gatto. It happened with Primebar. And it definitely happened when Uptown Cafeteria closed. But the chatter was quickly quieted when it was announced that (phew) the still-fabulous rooftop patio would remain open and stalwart restaurateur Tim McKee would take over the space with a sleek and chic new eatery. With his latest concept, Libertine, McKee has taken a cue from the likes of Jack Riebel and Isaac Becker, who found great success in updating the Midwestern steakhouse and making the mid-century chophouse fresh and new.
In this early phase, McKee seems to be focusing on running the front of house, and on our visits he could frequently be seen working the room, offering to administer a Vine-worthy "whiskey luge" (a shot of straight booze served from a hollowed-out beef bone) to any of-age diners who order and finish their divine marrow on toast. Libertine's version is superior, served with lemon peel shavings for brightness, briny pops of capers, and some sweet onion-bacon jam for layering on toasted baguette.
It's a nice way to start the meal (as are the refreshing oyster shooters with cucumber and gin), but there are no guarantees that it, or any other dish, will come out first. In lieu of the traditional dinner sequence, Libertine serves all plates as they're ready, which means there are times when you and your compatriots are vulturing over a single plate, or, more often, have a bounty of food laid out before you competing for your appetite's attention. The delivery system works with Libertine's communal seating and lounge feel, but be forewarned that only a few plates resemble a conventional entree. Instead, most meats are served solo (or with a single onion ring) and there are a number of unique cuts and technique-driven inventions to keep an eye out for in this pared-down space with a ramped-up menu.
Just as our server predicted, we took great delight in dissecting and devouring the bacon chop — a thick-cut, smoky pork chop with a generous fat cap that does double duty in imparting flavor and retaining juiciness. The restaurant world's seemingly endless quest to "baconize" all food has produced some unnecessarily gluttonous menu items, but McKee's beef bacon represents this trend at its best. Served in the form of a classic white bread and iceberg lettuce BLT, it may not be quite on the level of the lamb bacon BLT from Saffron, but if you're a fan of chewy bacon, this is the sandwich for you. Respectably textured but too-sweet Korean ribs and a meaty ahi tuna steak with a chimichurri-like sauce both fell somewhere in middling territory. The crispy fried pig's ears would make a decent dipping vehicle for their accompanying smoky-spicy-sweet sauce, but the addition of a fried egg topper ultimately made them more akin to an oddball poutine.
Moving into the dedicated beef and lamb portions of the menu (all the larger plates are still intended for sharing, and are divided up by protein type), the uber-tender onglet steak, which is what the French call the hangar, was a clear winner. Smothered in a compound butter made with roasted marrow and herbs, it had a lovely crust, the interior just blushing and the butter totally decadent. The lamb and brie Juicy Lucy was well-seasoned, but needed a punch of something — either sweet or acidic — to marry the whole idea together. The lamb Merguez sausages packed serious heat and complexity, but should really best be eaten blindfolded. They arrived grayish, broken, and creepily finger-like on a bed of limp roasted peppers, looking like the product of a test run or a whole pile of mistakes.
But to our great surprise and delight, the rakish Libertine is not all about serving the carnivore. In fact, the majority of the cold plates and hot sides are totally vegetarian, though we did get some surprise prosciutto (usually one of the best kinds of surprises) atop the plate of crispy fried baby artichokes, so double-check that the menu is up to date if you lean that way. We could fully imagine lusting after the crispy fried tofu, dressed up in Asian flavors and paired with a little char-grilled avocado, and though the roasted cauliflower with goat cheese fondant is lumped in with some of the other more entree-worthy vegetarian items, it's really better shared as a side dish. Inevitably, after someone asks for a bite and swipes the cauliflower — or any loose, edible thing on the table, for that matter — through the salty, pungent, dreamy sauce, there will be no return. You'll have to share with the whole class.
Bar program designer to the local restaurant stars Johnny Michaels has certainly perfected the batched cocktail (for quicker service and a tidier behind-the-bar operation), but Libertine's lineup of nearly two dozen tipples seems to favor the sweet and fruity side — lots of rhubarb tonic, apricot sours, strawberry-balsamic syrup. The exceptions to that rule were some of our favorites, as in the assertively bitter, bubbly version of the classic Negroni, topped with a subtle lemon foam; the I Am Steve McQueen, made with a base of smoky mezcal; and the restaurant's eponymous drink, which is sort of a play on a Manhattan with rye, gin, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and bitters.
The just-launched brunch menu keeps up the creative chophouse theme with dishes like well charred super meaty house-cured bacon and salmon pastrami Benedict that we expected to have smoky, chewy, or cured fish, but instead featured gently poached salmon, sprinkled with pastrami-inspired spices. Though somewhat misleading, the dish was well executed and the tangy 1,000 Island Hollandaise fabulous. Sweet seekers should be satisfied by the light and lemony Dutch baby, served hot and puffy with fresh fruit and a crepe-meets-custard center. Fans of the former Cafeteria will be glad to see Bloody Marys still get top billing at brunch. Of the three varieties served, the Tomacco is the boldest, fitting for those who like their a.m. drinks to taste like a p.m. steak. Bone marrow gives richness and dimension to the spicy tomato mix, rye whiskey stands in for vodka, and a few drops of tobacco bitters add that leather-bound book quality.
Only time will tell if Libertine will survive in this notoriously expensive, revolving-door piece of restaurant real estate. But McKee didn't get to be an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and household name by coming up with doomed concepts. That said, he definitely isn't playing it safe here either. One need only look at Libertine's varied, unexpected, and sometimes palate-challenging menu to understand that even in a neighborhood where every other storefront is a restaurant, McKee and his team will be able to offer something new.