Dusek’s, like a Longman & Eagle without the ironic facial hair, rocks Pilsen to its core. Jared Wentworth, L&E’s chef, and Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, two of its partners, have Longmanized the historic 1892 Thalia Hall with similarly intelligent yet hearty food and shelves lined just so with kitschy gear such as globes and bowling pins. But this time they’re doing it in a gorgeous space free of Logan Square’s claustrophobic coolness.
Not coincidentally, Dusek’s happens to be a better restaurant.
At first glance, the modest menu may look familiar. But Wentworth has upped his game, incorporating seamless American Southern and Asian influences into big, rich compositions, some routine and others unexpected. Terrific opening amuse-bouches—a mini banh mi, an avocado cake—prime the tongue for bar nibbles such as housemade pickles, buttery Mornay-sauce-filled pretzels, and warm wood-roasted olives. You’d be perfectly happy with the honest lobster roll spilling over with buttery chunks, an oyster plate of impeccable specimens from Connecticut to New Zealand, or the heaping ham sampler, featuring pig from Iowa to Italy with slices of perfect house-baked sourdough, sweet whipped butter, and a seedy mustard.
It’s all just preamble, though, to grand declarations such as a sweet-salty matsutake mushroom risotto with pumpkin, soy caramel chestnuts, and Asian pear relish—a true three-star dish. And at some point, while feasting on the delectable barbecued Gulf prawns with their one-hour egg and layer of collard greens and Anson Mills grits, I lost all control of my manners, sucking on the shells to get the spicy seasoning out of all the nooks and crannies, much to my wife’s disapproval. (It had absolutely nothing to do with my behavior: She wanted the shells.)
Dusek’s whole shtick of pairing dishes with an impressive roster of obscure craft beers pays dividends with the Ordinary, a nightly rotating matchup that nods to the building’s Czech pub history. On one visit we had a Tyranena Chief Blackhawk porter with our roasted pork collar. When the soft pork’s coffee tones, still lingering on the tongue, melt into the beer’s chocolaty tone, fireworks go off. Occasional clunkers (avoid the experimental seared Spanish mackerel composition) do little to dampen Dusek’s appeal. It helps that a well-trained staff courses out meals perfectly—all the way to the end, with desserts such as the ugly but lovable fried stout, basically doughnut holes with bavarois, coffee jelly, and toffee.
The owners obviously think of Thalia Hall as a social hub in a neighborhood full of them. Punch House, the often-packed late-night basement lounge, looks like a fishing lodge bar circa 1966; upstairs from Dusek’s will be a venue for live music, films, and festivals, opening in 2014. All told, the whole enterprise’s easy confidence, which masks exciting ambitions, aims less for cool than satisfying. And in doing so, it manages to achieve both.