Of all the simulated realities people depend on to make their mundane days bearable—plays, novels, films, songs, video games, drugs, dates with prostitutes—restaurants have the hardest time maintaining the suspension of disbelief; the experience usually isn't so all-consuming that you completely forget where you are.
To that end, Mainstay Hospitality, the small restaurant group that owns the Chicago Firehouse (You're meant to imagine: Hey, I'm a fireman!) and the late Grace O'Malley's (Hey, I'm Irish!), has opened City Tavern in the space vacated by the latter. It's been reconceived to inspire you to think, Hey, I'm an early American colonist! Windsor chairs, faux gaslights, and a lounge with a fireplace and long walnut bar dominate the front of the room, intended to conjure up an 18th-century New England tavern. But in execution it's not a very obtrusive concept, particularly with regard to the menu from Kendal Duque, which features some nods to that particular fantasy but casts a wide net designed to catch as many different appetites as possible.
It's a strange place to reacquaint yourself with Duque, who, after toiling at Tru, Everest, and NoMi, took the city by storm in 2008 as the opening chef at Sepia. There he gathered plaudits before stepping down and dropping, more or less, from sight. You didn't hear much about his subsequent stint at the Lakeview sports bar Cuna—his bio doesn't even mention it. And when Duque poked his head back into the restaurant scene's consciousness two years ago it was at a relatively low-key spot—the South Loop's steakhouse-ish Chicago Firehouse.
He's now crossed the street, and you can see some reflection of his Sepia days, mainly with his fondness for pizzas—ahem, OK, "flatbreads"—which, when they're positioned at the top of a menu before the starters and priced at a friendly $7, send a subtle sales pitch to the diner that he might need a starter for his starter.
There are a lot of different ways one can eat across this menu. You won't get an even sampling of what's going on here with one visit, or even two. In addition to those flatbreads and starters you can order sandwiches, a cheese and charcuterie plate, entrees, and entrees set apart from other entrees for no other reason than that they're "things from the grill" (which just happens to be the title of my zombie screenplay).
One of the menu's few unifying threads is that it features a number of heavy, hearty things that seem appropriate for brisker weather—brussels sprouts with pork belly, fried chicken and squash, a kind of shepherd's pie made with sea creatures, steak and ale pie, and a thick sunchoke veloute with a spoonful of braised oxtail meat and a small beef marrow dumpling. There's pecan tart at dessert.
You can't fault Duque for failing to predict record-breaking heat waves when he was developing his menu, but this is July, after all, not Thanksgiving. It's not that he's ignoring seasonal produce—it's just that many dishes are almost ponderously heavy for this time of year. With some exceptions, they aren't terribly close to what you'd expect to find at an actual New England tavern, either.
That steak and ale pie is a tall puck of heavy, fat-saturated pastry filled with juicy shredded beef. It's a workmanlike production that would see you through a day in the fields, or help you recover after one. The shepherd's pie I mentioned is a mess of scallops, shrimp, and fish swimming in a thin, lobster-bisque-like sherry sauce and smothered in a thick blanket of overprocessed mashed potato. Among the entrees, the fried chicken is outstanding, an Amish-raised bird that maintains its juicy integrity, though its feathery-crisp breading suffers from the stacking of pieces and the application of a light, lemon-rosemary gravy—best to eat this quickly.
That's not to say it's all artless pastorality. There are some finer touches here and there, just enough to remind you where Duque came from—the sunchoke soup, for instance, and a plate of deviled eggs, the smooth, whipped yolks stuffed with smoked salmon and crowned with black and green flying fish roe.
Many of Duque's menu items are similar to—or direct loans from—the Chicago Firehouse menu: baby beets and orange salad, oysters Rockefeller, a bacon-cheddar dry-aged strip-loin burger, and roasted scallops with goat cheese and cavatelli. A few desserts are directly outsourced from the Firehouse kitchen: an overgenerous slice of cool coconut cream pie, and a slab of pecan tart, heavy enough to take out a window.
One of the Firehouse-derived dishes is among the best City Tavern has to offer: a mushroom-stuffed whole trout, boned, grilled, and plated with brussels sprouts, guanciale, and mustard-dill sauce. But for the tough, dry gnocchi that comes along with it, the dish, with its multiplicity of flavors and textures, is a testament to the power of simple technique.
The strength of simplicity is apparent with other straightforward dishes as well, such as the walleye fillets—their skins seared, smoky, and crackly—served with pea shoots, artichokes, and mushrooms. Other pared-down dishes are head-scratchers; a few cauliflower florets dressed in a paucity of pine nut vinaigrette set in the midst of a huge portion of underseasoned farro seems like a kiss-off to vegetarians, and a grilled cheese sandwich is composed of the blandest varieties imaginable—ricotta, burrata, and fontina, melted between wedges of an equally characterless focaccia. It tasted like it could've been pulled from a plastic bag.
City Tavern's most interesting offerings come from behind the bar. A rum-focused cocktail list, partially designed by Peter Vestinos, another Sepia vet, is inspired by Revolutionary-era cocktails such as the Fish House punch, which leads it off. There are light, refreshing, sometimes sweet-and-sour drinks that are remarkably balanced. They don't all have the direct historical referent of, say, the milk punch, a gingered rum drink in a copper mug (dairy added to balance the acid) that goes down almost too easy. But even those that don't—such as an equally guzzleable rum, lime, and cider Stone Fence—seem as if they could.
In all, City Tavern's thematic pretensions are restrained, and its affordability and shotgun menu will serve the neighborhood well, particularly if the restaurant opens for lunch. But if you are traveling here from elsewhere, don't expect to lose touch with reality.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that the sunchoke veloute is served with a beef marrow dumpling.