Play It Again: A Review of Room Four

Greg Hardesty’s informal pocket-sized eatery packs plenty of flavor and polish into comfy dishes.

Rare is the restaurant under 500 square feet that garners much media buzz. An eatery that petite featuring burgers and tacos would strain to hit the gourmet radar. But when you are a chef who has racked up enough four-star reviews that you already have your own cutting-edge, postmodern “playground” where your culinary vision answers to no one, then just about any food you offer up, in any space, would draw a crowd. That is definitely the case at Room Four, Greg Hardesty’s slice-of-a-storefront restaurant, where the table bouquet might be fresh kale and the special could be the trimmings from the salmon being served next door at Recess, his hit prix fixe eatery. At Room Four, the gastronomic adventures are no less tasty—they just feel a little closer to home.

With its cheery orange-topped tables and plastic chairs, Room Four offers a throwback schoolroom motif similar to the vibe in Recess. But a contemporary, minimalist style frames the room in the form of dramatic curvilinear panels of distressed steel with random punch holes that let through just the right amount of warm date-night light. At the far end, a kitchen no bigger than your first apartment’s offers glimpses of meals being made, short-order style.

A no-reservations policy means your wait for a seat may not always be brief, especially as the night draws long. We saw more than one stylish couple high-five each other for making it in while a table was still for the taking. But most of Hardesty’s eclectic fans, from suited and skirted epicureans to hipsters in retro sneakers, can get in when they want, and the raucous camaraderie among his devotees is only magnified by the intimate space. Expect Hardesty himself to make a cameo most nights, finishing off a beer and chatting with regulars, clearly enjoying his success at mid-career.

Tacos and burgers may star most nights on Room Four’s menu, which changes daily, but all the offerings have proven tasty and polished. Almost any toque could make an aged local strip steak taste good, but how many can transform the meaty lesser cuts into a luxurious, gristle-free chopped steak lightly sauced in a rich gravy flecked with fresh veggies and mushrooms? How many chefs could elevate a schmear of egg salad on an English muffin to a righteous first course, topped with a silken slice of Serrano ham and a peppery tangle of arugula?

Those tacos arrive on a block of cedar fit with masonry nails to keep them upright and properly filled—a presentation somewhere between a Lilliputian torture device and those peg games at Ye Olde Country Store. Wrapped in a double thickness of corn tortillas, the version with hunks of lengua, or beef tongue, features the traditional threesome of fresh cilantro, creamy avocado, and tart tomatillo.

With the chef having ceded much of the finish work to his accomplished staff, the kitchen occasionally lets a few imperfections leave the line. An otherwise delectable salmon cake wasn’t exactly “crispy” as promised and came on a bun scorched in slightly stale-tasting butter. A light cod chowder with textbook al dente potatoes steamed with memories of the sea, though the plentiful croutons were tough and chewy, an unfortunate (and  unnecessary) distraction. Cookies chock full of chunks of dime-store candy bars were the only dessert on the nights we dined, but their whimsy, and their buttery crumb, were irresistible. We loved getting our fingers messy in the accompanying whipped cream.
This is the fourth spot Hardesty has launched—hence its name. At H2O Sushi, he raised the bar on tuna tartare. At Elements, he focused on minimalist gourmet. And Recess still makes us the fortunate victims of a skillful chef’s whims. But here, the fare is at its heartiest—and perhaps most heartfelt—as if his kitchen were cooking for its closest of friends. Consider this Hardesty’s thank you to his loyal fans—or his promise to keep feeding us well, K through 12.
Room Four
4907 N. College Ave., 317-925-7529,
HOURS Tuesday–Saturday 5:30–10:30 p.m.

This article appeared in the September 2011 issue.