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posted: 8/3/2012 6:00 AM

Hand-crafted cocktails keep Smith Street Station on the right track

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  • Mark Knudson, manager and mixologist at Smith Street Station, ignites the Veev Sour. The drink requires a little bit of heat to activate its secret ingredients.

       Mark Knudson, manager and mixologist at Smith Street Station, ignites the Veev Sour. The drink requires a little bit of heat to activate its secret ingredients.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Smith Street Station is located steps away from the train station in downtown Palatine.

       Smith Street Station is located steps away from the train station in downtown Palatine.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • A selection of cheese is one of the items on the small plates menu at Smith Street Station in Palatine.

       A selection of cheese is one of the items on the small plates menu at Smith Street Station in Palatine.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Haleigh Bonin and Scott Grewe, both of Palatine, enjoy drinks at Smith Street Station in Palatine.

       Haleigh Bonin and Scott Grewe, both of Palatine, enjoy drinks at Smith Street Station in Palatine.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Wayne and Karin Karge, of Palatine, enjoy a drink in the conversation-friendly lounge at Smith Street Station in Palatine.

       Wayne and Karin Karge, of Palatine, enjoy a drink in the conversation-friendly lounge at Smith Street Station in Palatine.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Bartender Kendra Weber of Cary adds smoke to a glass before adding bourbon and bitters to create the Smith Street Manhattan.

       Bartender Kendra Weber of Cary adds smoke to a glass before adding bourbon and bitters to create the Smith Street Manhattan.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Alissa Kaspan, of Crystal Lake, enjoys drinks with Tisha Kaspari and Erin Kemp, both of Cary, at Smith Street Station in Palatine.

       Alissa Kaspan, of Crystal Lake, enjoys drinks with Tisha Kaspari and Erin Kemp, both of Cary, at Smith Street Station in Palatine.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Downtown Palatine has plenty of places where you can get a shot and a beer. Now it has a place where you can get eclectic cocktails made with small-batch spirits and homemade mixers.

Smith Street Station opened in late April, and its handcrafted cocktails and upscale bar eats have it on track to become a popular spot with the 25-and-older crowd.

The lounge was carved into unused space under the rooftop dining area at Durty Nellie's, a longtime face on the suburban night life scene. Where Nellie's attracts a boisterous, beer-loving crowd, Smith Street Station aims for more sophisticated customers seeking cocktails and conversation.

Motif: Clubby chairs and couches arranged for easy conversation fill much of the space. The background music leans heavy toward the blues with WXRT favorites in the rotation, and it doesn't drown out the person across from you.

A lone flat-screen TV occupies an artsy alcove so if you really needed to catch the Cubs score you could. Paintings on the walls waiver between coffee house chic and Midwest motel.

A sleek topped bar is where we settled in so we could watch manager Mark Knudson muddle and mix. Knudson, a Schaumburg native, put in time as a mixologist at trendy Chicago spots, and developed the Station's cocktail menu with the mission to bring the Windy City's cocktail culture to the suburbs.

Crowd: The Station's website says it welcomes "the mature, well-dressed patron at least 25-years of age," and while no bouncer carded us the crowd appeared over the minimum age. While flip-flops and baseball hats are discouraged, I spotted T-shirts and shorts on a Thursday evening. A group of 30- and forty-something couples congregating on a recent weekend seemed all too happy to have traded in their Saturday gardening togs for maxi-dresses and plaid shorts.

Service: Since we sat at the bar, we had the opportunity to chat with Knudson and he gladly walked us through the cocktail menu, passionately describing his pink-tinged homemade tonic water and his method for infusing tequila with jalapeņos. Another server made the rounds in the rest of the room, and somewhat annoyingly paced when at a loss for someone to serve.

Remember that these are handcrafted cocktails that are more involved than just pouring call vodka into a rocks glass. Knudson crushes ice for some cocktails and doesn't carbonate the tonic water until he's ready to pour it into your glass. So sit back and know your patience will be rewarded.

Liquid consumption: Knudson's cocktails, most of them modern takes on the classics and all priced at $10.90, are the main attraction here. I can speak personally to the pleasure incited by the French 190, a sparkling sipper made with St. Germaine liquor, and the Cherry Car, a twist on the classic Side Car calling for cherry-infused brandy.

Knudson's tonic makes for a rather feminine-looking gin and tonic (you can get the tonic with vodka if you like) but the bold flavor affirms this cocktail's status with the boys' club.

If you really want a show, order the Smith Street Manhattan and watch Knudson or bartender Kendra Weber add smoke to a glass before mixing in the bourbon and bitters.

The cocktail menu will change a few times a year to reflect availability of seasonal ingredients. Knudson says he plans to introduce a melon and cucumber concoction in the coming weeks.

There's a long list of red and white wines with nothing outrageously priced and an ample array of craft and imported brews available by the bottle or can.

Food: The small plate menu is tight, but thoughtful. Knudson and chef Joe Hetman, who runs the kitchen at Durty Nellie's, bounce ideas off executive chef Zak Dolezal, son of owner Mark Dolezal and culinary leader at Duke's Ale House in Crystal Lake.

The mixed nuts on the menu should not be overlooked. They simply haven't tumbled into a bowl from a tin can. Rather the cashews, almonds and pecans have been roasted with the whiskey caramel and a hint of cumin to make for a thoroughly addictive snack.

The potato chips, likewise, are far from pedestrian. A creamy Gorgonzola sauce is drizzled over a plateful of crispy, fresh-made chips. Just when you think you need more of this finger-licking-good sauce, removal of a chip reveals more sauce hiding beneath.

Other options include a cheese plate, shrimp cocktail with green goddess dressing and marinated olives. I know this isn't a place to grab dinner, but flatbread (there are several nice options on the Durty Nellie's menu) or tortilla or lettuce wraps might be nice for those who want to nibble on something a bit more substantial.

Parking: Smith Street Station lies just steps from the Palatine train station, coincidentally on Smith Street, and parking is readily available in the adjacent parking garage.

Overall: Smith Street Station is a comfortable spot to relax with a Manhattan after work or enjoy a cocktail with friends when you want to talk, not shout or compete for attention with the Game of the Day.

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