If you take a look at Funkenhausen’s Facebook page, you’ll find a series of off-kilter, low-fi videos. They include the giddy exploits of two dolls, one in lederhosen and the other in a dirndl, a takeoff of an old Marky Mark music video, and a faux-solemn memorial service for recently departed menu items. It’s safe to say they’ll never go viral, so consider them a mission statement for a restaurant that doesn’t intend to take itself too seriously. In 2018, Funkenhausen is the cheeky restaurant we need — and the fact that it celebrates Germany, a country not exactly known for its sense of humor, is just the powdered sugar atop the gugelhupf.
The chef plunging bravely into the Black Forest is Mark Steuer. A South Carolina native, Steuer did terrific work at Carriage House, his low-country stalwart in Wicker Park, which closed in 2015. But this is a different animal altogether. Funkenhausen, which opened in August, is an attempt to combine Carriage House’s Southern hospitality with Steuer’s German heritage. This could easily have been a bad joke, one reinforced by the menu’s insistently goofy wordplay (“Sürfentürfen”? “Oysters Hockafeller”?) and the stuffed boar head on the wall named Ernest Hamingway. The jokey vibe is a stark contrast to the rest of the dining room — magenta leather chairs at a 40-foot-long marble bar, soaring wood beams, terrazzo floors, brass globe lamps, nary an oompah band in sight. All this strikes me as a sign that even though Steuer’s in on the joke, he won’t let you forget that what he’s doing in the kitchen is worthy of serious consideration.
For the most part, his savvy dishes, influenced by childhood summers in his father’s native Bavaria, bring the necessary gravitas. Though the 18-item menu plays it coy with cutesy categories such as (wait for it) “Big as Funk,” it deftly appends Southern touches to Euro traditions. The doughy, garlic-butter-coated pretzel knots eschew mustard in favor of pimiento-beer cheese and Alabama white barbecue sauce. A juicy smoked half chicken earns a burst of down-home flavor from summer squash and mustard greens in an Alsatian Riesling sauce. Corn on the cob, thickly brushed with aïoli and studded with crispy pork and pickled Fresno chilies, gets a blackened char from the same trusty smoker Steuer employed at Carriage House. (Glad he saved the thing.)
Elsewhere, Funkenhausen spins what could’ve been fusty grandma food into modern standouts. The seasonal summer spaetzle with basil, radish slices, red wine vinaigrette, and spiced walnuts comes across like a creamy pasta salad. Cold cabbage rolls stuffed with beef tartare, melted Gouda, pickled mustard seeds, and a punchy truffle vinaigrette — a presentation that looks a lot like the creature that popped out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien — somehow manages to be an inspired mash-up, the stuffing’s gentle acidity landing on the tongue with a whisper. Ricotta dumplings, little homespun lumps served with gooseberries, cauliflower, oyster mushrooms, and nubs of kielbasa in a ricotta-whey sauce, pull off the miracle of feeling like a light dish.
The restaurant has an uncanny knack for balancing sweet and salty, soft and crispy, and throwing in just the right amount of the right ingredient to elevate the banal to the brilliant. A case in point is the Crispy Little Bird. Two fried quail legs, sprinkled with tart peach relish, soak in a thick corn soubise; having pulled the bird’s golden exterior apart with my fingers, I sank my teeth through the juicy meat and marveled at the unusual tingle of Aleppo pepper and coriander.
And I never thought I’d say this, but the best thing on the menu may be the Broccolini. Steuer’s version is smoky, slicked with buttermilk dressing, and dotted with hazelnuts, golden raisins, and aged cheddar, a riot of sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy, and tangy. It’s far more exciting than some of the menu’s brawnier (and more familiar) options, like a rather pedestrian $21 Piggy Plate of housemade charcuterie, mousses, rillettes, and the like. The Big-Ass Schnitzel, which ought to be Funkenhausen’s signature dish, ends up being its biggest disappointment: surprisingly dry, even with the accompanying charred lemon and gribiche, and annihilated by what appears to have been the detonation of a dill bomb. Among the larger dishes, the true star is a flaky-moist ruby-red trout topped with a bean salad, almond slivers, and apricot sauce: an understated masterpiece. By contrast, there is nothing understated about either the four warm cinnamon-sugar doughnut holes oozing with vanilla custard and raspberry jam or their name: Ich Bin Ein Berliner.
Alas, the precious monikers, having already started to wear thin, definitively stopped being funny when I found myself attempting to order my postdinner cocktail — the Before Zee Germans Get Here (gin, strawberry amaro, green chartreuse) — without visibly cringing. I failed.
When I interviewed Steuer about Carriage House in 2012, he told me that Southern food could be “delicate and clean,” and I scoffed. When he said, “I wanted to show that we could modernize a dish without losing any of the tradition or flavor,” I rolled my eyes (which luckily he couldn’t see over the phone). After multiple meals at Carriage House, I changed my tune. Six years later, Steuer has found success applying the same philosophy to a different cuisine. I’ve concluded that Steuer has one of Chicago’s best palates, thanks to a preternatural understanding of how to make flavors and textures bounce off one another in playful, unexpected ways. And in his capable hands, it’s entirely possible that Funkenhausen will find the serious adoration it so richly deserves.