Tête Charcuterie, a bold new gamble from chefs Thomas Rice (Jean-Georges) and Kurt Guzowski (Landmark), can’t decide whether to be the Publican or the French Laundry. A grim culinary militia crowds Tête’s open kitchen, while the dining room, a former meatpacking facility outfitted with concrete floors and exposed ducts, flows with mellow servers in jeans and T-shirts.
Half the menu peddles pig in various settings: fashioned into pâtés, in pork belly rillons (similar to confit), or laid across boards as if presented to ravenous conquerors. The other half plays like a Michelin grab: intricate flavors and beautiful compositions full of dots and dabs on pristine plates that evoke artistry rather than carnivorous gluttony. You’d think that with one foot in Old World Europe and the other in River North, the operation would drown somewhere in between. But Tête gets so much right.
Few charcuterie boards deliver more indulgence than the $46 behemoth anchored by housemade pickles and mustard. It brings together nearly a dozen treasures, some cured in-house and others procured from nearby West Loop Salumi. Cassis, pistachio, and mushrooms lace a rustic pâté bourguignonne of Duroc pork; disks of rich coppa tingle with black pepper and bay leaf; and the finest head cheese in Chicago, a buttery marvel and the house signature, falls apart with the slightest pressure from your fork.
A World Cup of sausage options bops from Morocco to Germany to Chicago. The standout, thick and charred Filipino longanisa with garlicky dried-shrimp fried rice and Fresno chili marmalade, gets pasted with a Swan Creek Farms egg confit that’s been poached for one hour until it turns into custard. Branch out from pork and you’ll find an excellent German-inspired pickled beef cheek salad that tastes like top-notch corned beef with Vidalia onions and capers: Bavaria by way of Brooklyn. Surprisingly delicate rillettes of duck confit come with rhubarb marmalade and all the grilled toast you desire.
None of this prepared me for Tête’s à la carte items, each of which seems to originate from an entirely different kitchen. A stunning wild Pacific halibut with black olive “gnocchi” and tamarind brown butter jus feels like an outtake from Curtis Duffy’s Grace. Perfect ricotta agnolotti piled with morels and green asparagus in vin jaune d’arbois with burnt bread: Spiaggia. Pan-fried diver scallops, glistening with smoked anchovy cream and Green City Market peas à la française, lemon verbena, and chanterelles? Pure Goosefoot.
The misfires are more cosmetic than flavor based. On one visit, a waiter insisted my group eat the garlicky shishito peppers with our fingers, but the peppers had been slathered with so much black bean aïoli that doing so turned our faces and napkins into Rorschach tests. And as at Cocello, desserts barely register, though an aged veined Cypress Grove goat cheese with chopped brandied apples makes a fine sweet-savory capper.
While it may be hard to pinpoint the exact location of Tête Charcuterie’s heart, food this smart ought to draw customers. So why the empty tables? One possibility: The restaurant’s image, reinforced by its blunt name and breezy atmosphere, implies an informal meal, while the kitchen is up to something else entirely. I hope it finds an audience perceptive enough to spot its charms.