Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chicago: Hugo’s Frog Bar and Fish House

Where Everything’s Big and Loud
1024 N. Rush St., Chicago
Near North Side
PH: (312) 640-0999
Open Mon.–Fri., 3 p.m.–midnight; weekends, 11 a.m.–midnight
Major credit cards, reservations accepted


On my first night in Chi-town (I wonder if locals hate that nickname as much as San Franciscans dislike Frisco?), I went with my family to a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel at the tip of the Magnificent Mile. Hugo’s Frog Bar and Fish House had the look and feel of Chicago, and it was bustling for a Thursday night so I knew we were in the right place.

Hugo’s has a cute outdoor seating area along the sidewalk that had a real French feel. Inside, the bar was packed and dimly lit and the whole place had a real clubhouse type of vibe, where politicians probably broker deals over glasses of scotch.

There were five of us, including my nephew Chris whose college graduation I was attending for the weekend. After waiting a few minutes for our reservation to be ready, we were seated at a table near the center of the dining room. Although Hugo’s has a steakhouse feel, it definitely leans more toward seafood as demonstrated by the huge lettering along the ceiling with words like “lobster” and “escargot.”

And to demonstrate how fresh the seafood is at this place, our waitress brought out a platter of today’s catch. Raw seafood always look so beautiful to me, and I wanted to just have her sit that platter down so I could enjoy myself some sashimi (the Japanese word for thinly sliced fish eaten raw).

Side note: The sound at the restaurant is deafening. I could barely hear my sister and niece who were sitting next to me as we tried to catch up. Even though it was Thursday, it felt like a Friday night with people dressed up like they were going out to celebrate the weekend.

Hugo’s has a typical seafood menu, but it also offers a three-course prix fixe dinner for $29.50. My brother-in-law, niece and I were heading that route until our waitress warned us that the dessert offered in the prix fixe could feed a whole table (which begs the question why put that dessert on the prix fixe for one?) so she suggested one of us go the prix fixe route to get the dessert and the rest just order off the menu since all entrees come with a choice of soup and salad.

Dinner started with some seafood that were in season, including raw oysters ($2.50 each) and soft shell crabs ($16). The oysters, served with cocktail sauce and a dark mignonette, were OK but it didn’t seem as refreshing as ones I get back home in San Francisco.

The soft shell crab was lightly battered and then pan-fried. While the crab tasted great and the shell was easy to eat through, the plate still had a bit of moisture so it defeated the crispiness of the crab.

Most of us got the soup — either New England clam chowder or the lobster bisque. I went with the bisque, and my bowl had a brilliant orange color and I thought the consistency was spot on in terms of thickness. But the flavor really lacked much to remind me of lobster. It could have been tomato bisque for all I knew. (I couldn’t tell if my niece liked her bowl of New England clam chowder because she’s going through this spicy phase and doused her bowl with black pepper.)

There was a bit of a lull between our soups and entrées. So I just let my eyes wandered along the wall with all the framed photos and posters with references to frogs or Chicago or fishermen. Near us was this odd covered booth where a party of four can sit in almost like dining in a cone of silence.

Our entrées arrived and my sister dug into a fluffy looking lobster tail ($42), which looked a bit lonely on her plate. My nephew ordered the steak and crab cake ($46.50) while my brother-in-law got the grilled salmon ($25.75).

My niece got the prix fixe with the petite filet mignon. It was served with this humongous broccoli. Doesn’t the petite filet look even smaller next to that broccoli tree? (OK, the perspective may have been skewed also by my camera angle.)

I got the sauteed frog legs ($23). Hey, when you’re at Hugo’s Frog Bar, you have to do it, am I right? I do love frog legs, especially prepared the French way, which is pan-fried in butter. That’s how they do it at Hugo’s and my plate, when it arrived, looked big. I think there were maybe seven or eight frogs on my platter.

As I ate the legs, I was struck by the moisture on and around the legs. I’m starting to think there must be a quality control issue in the kitchen where they pan-fry things and let them sit and maybe develop moisture that then softens the food. That’s what my frog legs seemed to be like — nice in brown color but soft and slightly wet. There wasn’t much caramelizing to bring out the sweet flavors of the frog and instead they tasted bland.

Too bad because I was trying to introduce frog legs to my 17-year-old niece and she tried one of the legs for the first time and didn’t like it. I probably wouldn’t like frog legs too if Hugo’s version was the first ones I ate.

For dessert, the prix fixe menu listed key lime pie, and the waitress was right about it looking really big for one slice. (We kind of expected it because people around us were getting huge desserts brought to their tables — all with a steak knife stuck in the middle, which I think is an odd presentation.) That one slice was enough for all of us.

While the meringue looked beautifully torched and had a sweet, light texture, none of us liked the filling, which was gelatinous and lacked any key lime taste.

Hugo’s has live music on Fridays and Saturdays, so I can see how this place can be quite popular for the music and party atmosphere (there were a few birthday celebrations around us). But when it comes to the food, it seems just a step above an Outback. The ingredients may be the finest in the area, but the kitchen seems to lack the attentiveness to maintain that freshness onto the plate.

Single guy rating: 2.25 stars (Classic vibe, moderate food)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House on Urbanspoon

Past travels:
Cantler’s Riverside Inn (Annapolis, Md.)
El Trapiche Steakhouse (Buenos Aires)


Barbara said...

Good review and oh my those frog's legs! Love 'em!

FoodTherapy4Me said...

Love the Chicago trip! My sister lives there and I am always trying to find new things to do and places to go for each visit. Can't wait to see what you have to share next!!

Carolyn Jung said...

Wait a sec, wait a sec! You ate soft-shell crab that was "lightly'' fried? I thought you shun fried foods? Are you going off the wagon? heehee

Single Guy Ben said...

Carolyn, the soft shell crab was "pan-fried" lightly, not deep fried. Plus, I think that's the only way you can prepare soft shell crab. And finally, our whole table shared that one crab, so I really ate just a quarter of it. So I think I'm safe. ;-)

foodhoe said...

I never thought of escargot as seafood! Were the oysters are from the east coast? I love toasty meringue but am not a fan of citrus custards... I like it with chocolate better

Single Guy Ben said...

Foodhoe, hmm, maybe it didn't say escargot on the ceiling. They had all sorts of food stuff on the wall. The oysters were from the Maine area, they said.

Carolyn Jung said...

That pie does look a little sinister with a big ol' knife stuck into it. But oooh, the airy meringue top looks like pure heaven. I bet that was one tasty slice, albeit giant slice.