At Split-Rail, Zoe Schor attempts a cockeyed ode to Americana. Schor, the former chef of Ada St., opened Split-Rail in June, creating a kitschy scene that includes Twin Peaks–inspired cocktails (the Tennessee whiskey–based Path to the Black Lodge) and a yellow cotton banquette plastered with equestrian-themed cartoons. The industrial Humboldt Park space, with its polished concrete floors, open kitchen, and rowdy bar abutting a packed dining room, also happens to be an amplifier of noise. A few Persian rugs help only slightly.
The menu, a mix of bar bites, “classics,” small plates, and shareable entrées, overflows with cleverness. But clever doesn’t necessarily taste good. When it works, you get ingenious creations that tickle and tweak the palate, such as the “loaded baked potato gnocchi, puffy-light dumplings topped with Nueske’s bacon, Hook’s five-year sharp cheddar, and crisp-edged potato skins. When it doesn’t, you get things like massive whiskey-battered chicken nuggets that don’t taste much different from the mass-produced ones we grew up on, no matter how deep you dip them into the housemade honey-mustard sauce.
For every tightly composed dish—say, the sweet-toned grilled fingerling potato salad with peas, grilled celery, and sunflower seeds—I found a soupy train wreck like the green bean casserole. I marveled at the versatile Duck in Three Acts: six medallions of tender roasted breast, a puck-shaped leg scrumpet (similar to a croquette), and a sunny-side-up duck egg with wild rice pilaf. Then I tried to wish away the gummy linguine and clams, which tasted as if an entire lemon tree had fallen into it.
But every time the restaurant seemed destined to descend into something far closer to Guy Fieri than Thomas Keller, I’d find myself charmed by its moxie. The awkwardly named Fajitas, Reimagined goes out of its way to confound expectations. (“It’s not really fajitas,” warned the agreeable waiter, in a tone that suggested he’d repeatedly had to say so.) Yet the charred sirloin steak medallions, surrounded by familiar fajita accompaniments in cream and sauce form, were undeniably tender and flavorful. Other times, I was pleasantly surprised by the kitchen’s restraint, as in Toast No. 1, thin ribbons of marinated cucumber weaving in and out of silky ricotta and fleshy grilled apricot served on slices of seeded bread. It’s the kind of elegant but simple dish that made Schor a star at Ada St.
Instead of making a big fuss over desserts, Schor’s team does a few things well, like fluffy angel food cake perched atop a layer of Chantilly cream with fresh strawberries and strawberry sauce. And a vocal crowd has taken to Split-Rail’s long bar. The restaurant repays their zeal with a thoughtful drink menu featuring a handful of low-proof (or no-proof) cocktails as well as mighty concoctions such as the Armory Show, a maple-stoked mix of High West double rye tempered by multiple Italian liqueurs. Let’s just say no one’s going thirsty.
Schor clearly has imagination to burn. Call me a wet blanket, but where some might applaud a skilled chef having fun, I see a burgeoning talent capable of much more than chicken nuggets. In another era, I could give Split-Rail all the time in the world to settle in, but I suspect the gimmicky concept would still not speak to me personally—not in two weeks, two months, or two years. The restaurant’s cult following implies that there’s a market for cheffing up honest Middle American food, but unless Split-Rail decides to get serious, I’ll be on the fence.