The open kitchen at Gilt Bar
Lurking among the majestic Belgian ales and pedigreed microbrews on Longman & Eagle’s beer list is a pint of “crisp, rich” Old Style. Yes, that Old Style. Slurp a Pabst product on Lower Wacker and you’re a nuisance; do it under a high raw-wood ceiling and dangling Edison bulbs in Logan Square and you’re a hipster. An apparent upside to all this locavore stuff is that you get to drown your farm-raised, hormone-free pig in all the cheap beer you want. Ironically, of course.
Everywhere you look in Longman’s scruffy porkapalooza, you see tattoos, skinny jeans, and weedy facial hair—and that’s just the staff. Four partners, including Pete Toalson and Bruce Finkelman (best known as the rock-savvy partners at Empty Bottle), have captured Logan Square’s weary slacker vibe with their vintage take on a neighborhood inn. A wonderful notion, this inn thing. But the noise into the wee hours—pulsing from the bar, the exposed kitchen, the vintage Wurlitzer, the whiskey-pickled dude at the next table—could wake the dead, much less some misguided soul who checks into one of the six hotel rooms opening upstairs this summer.
Longman & Eagle’s chef, Jared Wentworth, snatches the snout-to-tail trend with both mitts and wrings every last oink out of gorgeous Slagel Family Farm acorn-fed Berkshire hogs. If you go on the right night and order wisely, it’s possible to devour a hog’s head, neck, shoulder, liver, belly, loins, thigh, rump, and caul fat, and probably any other illicit part if you ask nicely. Hardly a coincidence that Wentworth was never this popular when he was serving seafood at Andersonville’s departed Atlantique. “Anyone can grill a steak or roast a chicken,” says Wentworth. “But a pig can showcase your skills. And it’s affordable. And it goes with any libation. . . . It’s a magic beast.” He may start you with an amuse of pork rillettes with Granny Smith apple and pickled onions and shallots, and things only get more personal after that. Pork belly confit has devolved into cliché, but when you bite into this one’s crisp browned top, and half an inch of hot fat melts into tender meat, all earthly matters—cliché, irony, any façade of restraint—dissolve with it. Even the terrific accessories (pumpkin risotto, chestnuts, apples, and a soy-caramel broth) fade away. Everyone is going Looney Tunes for Longman’s tender wild boar sloppy Joe with crispy sage, dried onion strings, and, for some reason, a grilled and pickled jalapeño. An inspired creation, but that face-numbing pepper ought to come with a side of defibrillator paddles.
Plenty of nonporcine treasures populate the menu, too, with varying degrees of success: Fried Ipswich clam bellies on a toasted brioche with celery root rémoulade have a light touch; bouillabaisse, swimming with scallops and tail-on shrimp, lacks any serious depth. You want irony? Perhaps Longman’s most complex offering is vegetarian: a slow-roasted cauliflower with beluga lentils, caramelized onion, golden raisins, pickled mango, and cucumber raita—big dish, big flavors. Through all this, your waiter will most likely look like Jeff Tweedy’s disheveled nephew, but don’t be surprised when he, and the rest of the pleasant staff, prove sharper than a buzz saw.
Neighbors camp out at the striking bar with rye whiskey flights and salty upscale snacks like rabbit pâté or a pretzel with Welsh rarebit. Smart barkeeps know their way around a Manhattan and have nearly 60 bourbons to play with. Forgo the wine list—hell, forgo the lame desserts—and have another drink, even if it’s only a Unibroue Maudite, a potent red ale from Montreal that improves with age. I’m guessing Longman & Eagle will improve, too, especially if Wentworth is correct about the next trend: “Ducks,” he says. “They’re the second-most versatile animals on earth.”
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If Longman & Eagle got a haircut, enrolled in a Spinning class, and went nuts with a Visa card on Oak Street, it would be Gilt Bar. As it turns out, the Beautiful People Who Surface Only When a Hot Restaurant Opens eat a lot of the same stuff in River North as the tattooed schlumps in Logan Square. Gilt’s smallish-plates menu includes an honest bone marrow, pork belly, and the like, and its fancy beer/cocktail list pulls the same slumming maneuver with Pabst Blue Ribbon. (Though the hotties lounging on the leather couches probably wouldn’t be caught dead with their manicured fingers wrapped around one. Well, maybe after a few vodka tonics.) The brown-toned space is undeniably cool, particularly the mesmerizing chandelier with wire lights, but what Gilt Bar calls a “soft glow,” I call “too damn dark.” The waitress gave my guest a flashlight to read the menu. I had to borrow it to find my napkin.
Brendan Sodikoff, a Southern California native who has cooked with gods (Messrs. Keller and Ducasse, to name a couple) and mortals (Lettuce Entertain You) draws inspiration from somewhere in between: the “simple, pure cooking” of farm-friendly Northern California bar food. A smooth orb of gioia burrata (mozzarella’s creamier cousin) on a mound of Werp Farms mizuna with grilled country bread has exactly the kind of wonderful simplicity Sodikoff is shooting for, as does the fluffy ricotta gnocchi with just a sprinkle of Parmesan. If you’re quaint enough to demand pig in its most approachable form, the oven-roasted, crisp-tender pork meatballs with white grits and brown butter deliver straight-up pleasure. Grab a side of hand-cut Kennebec frites with garlic aïoli and maybe an excellent Corpse Reviver #2 by Jen O’Brien, the master mixologist, and you’re doing all right.
Gilt has one of those curious menus where it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re ordering, but your check still ends up affordable. Trouble is, the menu contains its share of duds. Juicy steamed mussels got annihilated by an unpleasantly bitter dry vermouth broth, and the grilled swordfish was so unwieldy and mismatched that its chunky roasted San Marzano tomatoes seemed to be cowering in fear. “Caramel-ized” Brussels sprouts came rawer than a briefing from Rahm Emanuel. And I don’t want to take a trip to Negativetown here, but we endured lots of waiting for dishes and listening to the staff gush about how “awesome” everything was. (When I asked what made the frites awesome, our sweet young waitress said they’re made with “special potatoes.”) Desserts are mostly fun little treats like almond chews, homemade caramel corn, and licorice sticks, and they’re pretty good. (Glad to hear Gilt finally printed a list. Maybe the waitstaff could remember all eight options. I could not.)
If this sounds overly harsh, it’s because Gilt Bar could be (will be?) so much more. “I just want it to be a great American restaurant with a beautiful cocktail program and a great price point,” Sodikoff has said. “Great” may be pushing it at the moment, but he got the rest of that sentence right.
230 W. Kinzie St.; 312-464-9544
FYI The dark basement corridor to the bathrooms, echoing with music from an old Victrola, is creepy. As a guest of mine said: “No one can hear you scream down there.”
TAB (without alcohol, tax, or tip) $30 to $40
HOURS Dinner Tuesday to Saturday
LONGMAN & EAGLE
2657 N. Kedzie Ave.; 773-276-7110
FYI If you must order dessert, get the crème brûlée with langue du chat (“cat’s tongue”) cookies and a Mason jar of plum compote.
TAB (without alcohol, tax, or tip) $30 to $40
HOURS Dinner nightly
Photograph: Anna Knott