Earlier this week I wrote how Lula Cafe's Jason Hammel admirably adjusted to his downtown digs at Marisol, in the Museum of Contemporary Art. In what was arguably a bigger leap—conceptually if not geographically—Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader, Hammel’s old colleagues at Lula and at Pilsen’s much-missed Nightwood, recently set up shop in the tech-bro area of the Fulton Market District, opening City Mouse in the swanky Ace Hotel, across from Google’s Chicago office. “We’re feeding a lot of people,” says Vincent, also a partner at Logan Square’s tiny but mighty Giant. “People are ordering room service, or there’s a wedding for 300 upstairs.” I always thought his smart and off-kilter food existed in an insular farm-to-table world, far removed from anything as crassly commercial as room service.
City Mouse’s noisy dining room and patio—the latter with huge fire pits—teem with folks networking in the shadow of the giant Google logo. They spill over into the adjacent hotel lobby, where they lounge about with laptops and gin fizzes. A note on the menu reads: “Fine foods, nice people.” I had my doubts.
But this place pulls off the same trick as Giant, on a larger scale. It gives the nice people what they want, and things they didn’t even know they wanted because those things never existed before. In the former case, that means straight-up comfort food, like spicy spaghetti sprinkled with breadcrumbs and bacon or a juicy double burger with gooey layers of American cheese. Those crowd pleasers share space with goofy, brilliant inventions like fried cheddar balls topped with caramel and caviar. And the kitchen isn’t afraid to travel in search of flavor. The rolled-up, grill-marked Roti Mopho, with sides of roasted sesame eggplant, fresh dates, feta, and chili sauce, pulls transcontinental culinary references into one cohesive, playful whole as satisfying and creative as anything at Giant.
Much credit goes to veteran executive chef Pat Sheerin (Trenchermen), the kind of brainy cook who goes on about, say, the benefits of having soft-poached eggs sitting at 142 degrees in a ziplock bag in the kitchen at all times during service. (“The yolks don’t coagulate until closer to 150 degrees,” he says. “So you still have a hot egg with a runny yolk ready to go.”) His expertise translates into flavors that pop in unexpected ways, as on the Gas Station Sandwich, a McMuffin-like assemblage of hash browns, egg, cheese, sausage, and—seriously—grape jelly, available at the insanely popular brunch. Even in potentially gimmicky dishes, such as a winking take (yet another!) on the baked potato—a buttery fillet of wild striped bass topped with bacon, sour cream, and scallions—familiar flavors unspool in exciting new ways.
City Mouse’s staff leans to the same charming eccentrics that populate Giant. My gruff waitress with a heart of gold traded barbs while rhapsodizing over the Mutsu apple and pear salad with toasted farro. It seemed entirely possible she might bum a bite of our fried artichokes, crisped to within an inch of their lives and topped with tangles of pork ragu, breadcrumbs, and melted Taleggio. I would’ve let her.
At City Mouse, Vincent and his crew have captured the same elusive magic that makes Giant irresistible, but for a completely different audience. “I’m pretty sure I hate corporate America,” says Vincent, and yet he’s thriving in the middle of it. If restaurateurs like him and Hammel succeed on both grand and intimate scales, we’re all better off—whether art lovers, techies, or somewhere in between.