It’s all right there in the entryway—everything you really need to know about Trenchermen, Michael and Patrick Sheerin’s wildly unconventional new spot. Pore over the menu all you want, trying to imagine what chai tofu ice cream tastes like and how one makes kimchi mortadella, but it will bring you no closer to understanding the spirit of the place. And don’t look to your server, who will likely describe the menu with an opaqueness usually reserved for Hegel scholars. I’m still trying to process what exactly “casual fine dining” means and how much food one should expect when ordering a “small-plate-size entrée.”
The restaurant’s foyer, however, tells the story. There are terrariums, a nod to the brothers’ (Michael from Blackbird, Patrick from the Signature Room at the 95th) reliance on small local farms. Cubbyholes filled with whimsical curios, such as an iron lunchbox, and drawers with wacky labels, from bacon and Spam to tadpoles and Dracula’s blood, signal a witty approach to haute cuisine.
If this sounds like something you’d find in one of Harry Potter’s classrooms at Hogwarts, you’ve hit on the charm of the place. Trenchermen embraces the idea of culinary exploration with skill and gusto. But it’s a dangerous gambit. I wonder how many people will look at the menu (Anyone for chilled zucchini soup with sardines, coconut horseradish cream, soy cucumbers, and kasha?) and take off running. Those who do will miss out on quite an experience. With its exposed pipes and tangled ropes, the space might offer too many oddities per square inch, but there’s genuine alchemy to be found on the Sheerins’ menu.
Basic dishes, often reserved for high-school cafeteria food, for example, are given the royal treatment. Pickle Tots, a fusion of Tater Tots and fried pickles, are paired with slices of chicken bresaola (an air-dried spiced deli meat) and finished with a cool red onion yogurt sauce so tangy you might give up good old ranch dressing forever. And the beef brisket entrée, with homemade cornichons and mustard garganelli, is a brilliant ode to beef stroganoff.
From there, everything becomes more complicated. Think shreds of lime-marinated carrots, a fresh garbanzo bean hummus (guys, please, please bottle this for football Sundays), and a crunchy salad of browned cauliflower and Marcona almonds. I was particularly smitten with a pork belly covered with coconut, plums, and sugar snap peas, all laced with a sauce inspired by a stick of bubblegum, redolent of vanilla, bananas, and almonds. It was rich and tropical, yet not too sweet. Ingenious.
What I don’t understand is why the Sheerins add acridly bitter notes to so many dishes. Asparagus seeds killed a complex take on scallops with avgolemono sauce (made with oysters and lemon juice) and an egg yolk prepared like bottarga (salted, pressed, dried, and grated). Bits of chicory were superfluous in a smoked paddlefish dish that never came together. And an excessively smoky chocolate sauce overwhelmed the coffee cake. I can excuse the latter, as Trenchermen’s hit-and-miss desserts lean toward the savory. But tossing in shock waves of bitter flavors to jolt diners out of their comfort zones seems a bit too intellectualized.
Trenchermen is at its best when it’s most playful, using ingredients both familiar and exotic to craft daring and electrifying creations. There’s wizardry in this lab—er, kitchen—if you have the courage to partake in the experiment.
* * *
Photograph: Anna Knott
Entering City Tavern, Chef Kendal Duque’s new colonial-inspired spot, is a magical experience—like slipping through the looking glass into an era when cocktails leaned on rum and milk, pies were stuffed with steak, and every dish came with a rich sauce that deserved its own loaf of bread. It’s the 18th century reborn.
The transition from street to restaurant is stunning. Outside, it’s all asphalt and concrete, cars and condos. Inside, there are cozy fireplaces and silver trays. Water is poured from hefty glass pitchers, and guests sit in round-backed chairs that look like holdovers from the First Continental Congress. Somewhere, the Founding Fathers must be smiling over this place. That’s chiefly because Duque, who created lighter fare at Sepia and supervisess the steaks and chops at Chicago Firehouse, has taken inspiration from the trading routes of the age, which allowed ships from Spain, Portugal, Germany, and the West Indies to offload foodstuffs and cooking techniques onto American shores.
As a result, his menu leans toward rich sauces and unexpected bursts of sweetness. The crust of a delicious flatbread, for instance, arrives spiked with cinnamon, nutmeg, and honey, capturing the savory complexity of a dark Caribbean rum. Beef cheeks are braised in an inky porter and accompanied by the earthiest root vegetables available: turnips, carrots, and puréed and truffled taro root. Then there’s Duque’s pork chop, glazed with a vinaigrette made with Banyuls, a fortified wine. The chop is liberally sprinkled with black pepper and topped with a thick slice of smoked bacon. Its appeal at our table split purely along gender lines. The men adored it; the women found it too indulgent.
On occasion, Duque was too bold for all of us. A sunchoke soup showed great potential but was marred by greasy bits of oxtail. And the house’s two pasta selections—a grainy whole-wheat version of carbonara and a cavatelli swamped in a milky goat cheese sauce—were both murky and gray. Those slip-ups just didn’t jibe with Duque’s mastery of sauces, which include a blood orange béarnaise for his crab-topped salmon and an earthy mustard dill sauce for a dynamite mushroom-stuffed trout.
It’s the sort of food that demands to be served on sturdy wood tables, with thick cloth napkins and a cold glass of beer. City Tavern offers all three, especially the latter, boasting 80-plus options by the bottle and 18 draft choices. At a time when everyone claims to have a beer-friendly menu, this is the rare spot that delivers. And the creative list of cocktails features a punch made with Bermuda rum infused with black tea, worth a tipple and perfect as an after-dinner pairing with a slice of excellent pecan pie.
But the most charming anachronism of all may be the cost of your meal. Appetizers hover around $10, entrées around $17—budget-friendly prices to which we can all raise a glass.