Opened last spring in the newly renovated atrium of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare, O'H American Grill looks like something out of a science-fiction movie.
An illuminated glass and metal archway towers over the bar. Space-age flat video screens fill the nearby Red Bar lounge. Silvery metal trees drip glass globes. Sleek, backlit panels frame an open, galley kitchen backed by glass-fronted refrigerators.
From your restaurant seat, you can watch lighted glass elevators travel up and down the atrium, swirling with shifting, psychedelic, colored patterns. The seats, oversized, white-leather padded banquettes, curve over your head like protective rocket chairs ready to close in for a launch.
The whole scene looks like something out of "2001: A Space Odyssey," or maybe "Sleeper" -- the future as envisioned in the 1970s.
Which makes it even weirder that the restaurant's specialty is barbecue.
That's right. Barbecue. In a hotel.
Those convinced that real barbecue can only be made with hardwood coals in an outdoor pit can turn the page right now. But despite the frequent truth to the 'cue fans' maxim, "If you can't smell smoke outside, it ain't worth going in," O'H's chefs smoke up some pretty good beef brisket and chicken with their Southern Pride Smoke Chef, an electric cooker that burns wood chips.
Maybe it isn't real barbecue, but it's among the best imitations you're likely to find quite so close to O'Hare, Allstate Arena and the Stephens Convention Center. Even better, on Tuesdays and Fridays, the hotel serves an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet for $29.
I liked the brisket best -- tender, juicy and nicely smoky, with crusty edges -- smoked eight hours and carved to order. I could also taste the good smoke in the chicken, which retained a moist flesh and decently crisp skin despite its holding time on the buffet.
The ribs suffered. Meaty baby backs though they were, the wait on the buffet, where chefs ladled barbecue sauce on top, gave them an unhappy steamy quality, even though they retained adequate texture. I suspect though, that these somewhat chewy ribs will satisfy neither rib lovers who like a good chaw nor those who prefer the fall-off-the-bone, eat-with-fork variety.
The hot buffet also offers some rather bland fish and several side dishes, including somewhat soggy corn on the cob, baked beans and a very respectable baked macaroni and cheese, dished up by chefs from cast-iron pots.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays, instead of the brisket, chicken and ribs, O'H serves a $35 smoked prime rib buffet. That sounded so good, I wished I'd come on another night.
Along with the hot buffets, there's a large and elaborate salad bar, offering, among other things, a variety of greens and toppings, including three kinds of cheese; creamy coleslaw; a very nice smoked-chicken salad studded with dried cranberries, nuts and fresh apple; and some really wonderful mixed smoked mushrooms.
Desserts come with the buffet as well -- chocolate-chip cookies, brownies, mini eclairs, layer cakes and the like. All of these have a kind of hotel-banquet quality to them, unexceptionable and nothing to get excited about.
Hotel executive chef Louis Pignotti, who has worked for Hyatt since 1979, describes O'H's theme as "American comfort food."
In creating the menu, it's clear that he triumphed over the room's designer or, along with restaurants like Moto, Avenues and Alinea, O'H would be serving edible paper sushi, lamb sprinkled with crushed Altoids and foie gras crusted with Pop Rocks from smoking glass test tubes. But even if you order from O'H's regular menu, you won't be served anything flash frozen, laced with sodium alginate or dunked in calcium chloride.
Besides the buffet, you can select such comforting, old-fashioned options as navy-bean soup, chicken soup with kreplach and matzo balls, and chili, as well as traditional Cobb and Caesar salads.
The barbecued ribs, chicken and brisket also appear as individual entrees, presented a little differently from the buffet items. Other meaty choices include several steaks, such as a 24-ounce prime T-bone and a 16-ounce rib steak, and rosemary-marinated pork chops.
Wild Alaskan salmon stuffed with crabmeat and arugula and Florida Coast grouper with preserved lemons constitute intriguing seafood options. Vegetarians can opt for whole-wheat pasta with tomato, beans, eggplant, zucchini and herbs -- the sole entree under $20.
A respectable wine list leans toward California, but includes ample representation of global varieties.
Housemade desserts include apple pie, Key lime pie and banana-cream pie. But no futuristically inflated monster bananas.
O'H American Grill
9300 Bryn Mawr Ave., Rosemont, (847)696-1234, ohare.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/entertainment/restaurants/index.jsp
Setting: Spacey hotel lobby
Price range: Appetizers $7 to $16; entrees $14 to $20; wine $8 to $13 by the glass, $30 to $130 by the bottle
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily
Accepts: Major credit cards
Also: Breakfast: 6 to 10:30 a.m. daily; lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily