It's a far cry from a food truck or a modest Edgewater storefront, and to be honest, when I first saw the slogan for MorSo—"Fare, Libations"—it struck me as pretentious. But Matt Maroni of Gaztro-Wagon has seamlessly added fine dining to his repertoire at this casually elegant space, formerly the site of the Lincoln Park Terragusto.
His menu is concise: six categories (Raw, Veg, Shellfish, Fish, Offal, Game), each comprising three dishes that can be used to make a do-it-yourself tasting menu out of plates too generously portioned to be termed "small." But before dining, do yourself a favor and head up to the second-floor bar, which is presided over by self-described "libations wizard" Choo (aka Matthew Lipsky), formerly of the Southern. In addition to 30 whiskeys, he's put together a list of specialty cocktails. That's de rigueur these days, but these concoctions stand out—particularly the smoky, sweet Monkshood (yes, after the poisonous plant), bourbon with apple, walnut, and molasses. It was perfect on a blustery evening.
In the intimate space downstairs, its black-and-white color scheme warmed by wood, we were seated at a banquette with black pillows. First came a delectable amuse bouche of tiny, toasted Parker House rolls, topped with duck confit and huckleberries and served on a little silver tray with a tiny spoon. It would be wonderful with a glass of sparkling wine; the list of 61 labels offers several. Some are on the pricey side—there's one for $45 a glass—but we had success with a $28 bottle of Spanish red.
We then proceeded to assemble a feast. The raw section looked the least inspired on paper—tuna carpaccio, oyster shooter, yawn—but the first item, antelope "tonnato," was a stunner. Bright red, lemony, and more tender than any beef carpaccio I've ever encountered, it was served with tonnato sauce, focaccia toasts, caperberries, and a side of impeccably fresh dandelions, which also turned up on their own in a salad with walnuts, radishes, sherry, and pecorino.
Another standout was the crab cake, topped with crispy deep-fried oysters and served with bacon, leeks, chard, and a lush scallop sauce. The two additional shellfish dishes—scallops with gnocchi, pecans, corn, and leeks; clams with tortellini, chives, mascarpone, anchovy butter, and bread crumbs—were tempting, but we moved on to the offal, snacking on crispy veal sweetbreads served with avocado and smoked tomato. Seared foie gras also came accompanied by tomato, in the form of a jam with fennel that made us wish for bread service.
When that arrived, alongside the entrees, it was delightful: jalapeño corn bread, more buttery miniature rolls, and cinnamon-raisin crisps, served in a jar with a tipped-back lid holding a triangle of truffle-honey butter. Touches like that one, the dish towels that serve as napkins, and the colored crocks some dishes are served in make the dining room feel friendly and down-to-earth.
One of those crocks held wild boar belly, a Maroni favorite that fans of Gaztro-Wagon will be familiar with. Here the surprisingly lean meat is accompanied by a hearty side of white beans with dates and candied olives. Another selection, bronzini, came in a striking presentation, the fish fillet balanced atop two vertically propped stuffed cabbage rolls with crawfish and lobster nage—but, lacking in flavor, it wasn't particularly successful. Ditto the antelope (at $24 the most expensive thing on the menu), which was tough, though I liked the earthy side of mushrooms, chiles, corn, and avocado. As if that weren't enough, we'd also ordered the superrich spaetzle, served with mushrooms and Gouda. After the meal our server wrapped it for us without even having to ask.
One member of our party was eating for two, as they say, and she doughtily agreed to order dessert: beignets served with ricotta, honey, and house-made huckleberry ice cream. These too were a disappointment, gummy and doughy little balls rather than the pillowy traditional version we'd expected. Happily, one of the friendly chefs—the kitchen is open, and you can sit at a bar in front of it—had bestowed a plate of carrot cake on us. Moist and light, it was served with house-made pistachio sorbet (vegan, we were told) and raisin chutney dotted with thin coins of raw carrot. Before leaving we were also presented with small paper bags carrying lemon madeleines, a gracious touch.
While charming, MorSo is a little spendy for my pocket. But it does offer a lounge menu upstairs with reasonably priced offerings, among them a cheese plate with truffle honey and sesame-chile crackers, frites, fried oysters, and a burger "croque" with capicolla, provolone, and a fried egg. Since several of the "libations" are priced at $10—just a dollar more than a shot of Maker's Mark at the Park West down the street—I know where I'm headed after a show.