Restaurants: On Tap, January 8, 2009 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: On Tap, January 8, 2009 

Ten restaurants with superior beer lists

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On Tap

The Bluebird1749 N. Damen | 773-486-2473

$$Bar/Lounge, Small Plates, American Contemporary/Regional | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, wednesday-Friday till 2, sunday-Tuesday till 1

Want some bacon with your porchetta? On the menu at the Bluebird, a late-night lounge/wine bar/gastropub from the owners of Webster's Wine Bar, it's hard to find anything not spiked with smoked pig. An otherwise relatively sane addition to the nightlife corridor stretching up Damen from the Wicker Park crotch, Bluebird's a pleasantly understated space, outfitted in a sort of rustic-minimalist vein, with tables made from old wine casks and stools reminiscent of high school chem lab. On a Sunday night at least, it's a nice mellow scene. For the most part the starters are great—toasts, salads, flatbreads, and so on. The classic frites, simultaneously crispy and floppy and served with little cups of addictive curried ketchup and garlic aioli, are no-brainer perfection. Of the heartier main plates a brined and smoked "baconed pork chop" tasted of nothing but smoke and salt—though maybe my taste buds were just numb by then. The extensive beer list is sophisticated and heavy on the Belgians. —Martha Bayne

The Bristol2152 N. Damen | 773-862-5555

$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge| Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1, Thursday till midnight, tuesday-Wednesday till 11

If we truly lived in a town that cared to eat well, restaurants like chef Chris Pandel's beercentric the Bristol would be distributed evenly instead of concentrating in overcrowded, gentrified ghettos like Bucktown or Lincoln Square. The seasonal menu at this new arrival promises interesting variety at accessible prices, including on one visit a broiled eel sandwich, a perfect pairing of grilled mackerel and romaine in the Caesar, and "Scotch olives," a mutation of a Scotch egg (a boiled egg encased in sausage and deep-fried) and Italian olives all'Ascolana (fat green olives stuffed with pork and veal and deep-fried). The Bristol's snack portion consists of smaller fruit somewhat overwhelmed by their envelope of crispy pork sausage—but I'd be helpless not to order it again. Challenges are even more evident on the daily chalkboard menu, where snout-to-tail items beyond pork belly or the increasingly common headcheese put the Bristol (along with places like Mado and the Publican) in the growing class of restaurants catering to the public's curiosity about the fifth quarter and other uncommon proteins. It's indicative of Pandel's guts that he's unafraid to leave the foot on a roasted half chicken, but at the same time he occasionally shows too much restraint. A supper-club-style relish plate special with potted salmon and beer cheese featured beets with a sprinkling of grated bottarga, the delicious, famously funky cured roe of a mullet. But it was applied with such moderation that if I'd never eaten it before I'd think it was nothing more than some ungarnished purple root vegetable. Similarly, the gaminess inherent in a grilled goat trio—chops, belly, and rib—was so disguised by a sweet, sticky hoisin sauce that I could have been eating lamb. If these dishes still sound fearsome, there's plenty here to feed the timid—duck-fat fries, a burger, a steak—and the beer list is deep and fascinating, with lots of large-format bottles and unusual choices. Reservations are accepted for the second-floor dining room only, where a prix fixe menu for $29 is now available on Fridays and Saturdays. —Mike Sula

The Gage24 S. Michigan | 312-372-4243

F 7.1 | S 7.1 | A 7.6 | $$$ (9 reports)Bar/Lounge, English/Irish/Scottish | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2

Across the street from Millennium Park, the Gage draws swarms of tourists and suits alike, and the restored ceiling and decorative tile only amplify the din. But if you can tolerate the noise, you'll find some superb dishes. The extensive drinks list features 12 beers on tap and more than 60 bottled, plus specialty and vintage cocktails like the Champagne Charlie (champagne and Grand Marnier with a sugar cube soaked in blood orange bitters). The one-page menu has surprising breadth without seeming scattershot: there are half a dozen steaks and burgers alongside more unusual offerings like roast saddle of elk. Save room for dessert: sweets like "coffee and doughnuts" make a perfect finish. Brunch offerings include a traditional Irish breakfast. —Rob Christopher

Glunz Bavarian Haus4128 N. Lincoln | 773-472-4287

$$$German/Austrian, Bar/Lounge | Lunch: Thursday-Sunday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 2

This fairly high-end German-Austrian restaurant is anchored by alcohol, with 16 beers available on tap, 20 more by the bottle, and a selection of wine drinks including May wine produced by the Glunz family (owners of the Old Town wine store House of Glunz since 1888). The bar's ambience spills over into the dining section, complete with Hofbrauhaus chairs and silly, gilt-framed paintings of castles and flower arrangements. The menu is small but classic: soups, sausages (Thuringer, bratwurst, weisswurst, the last mild and delicious), and entrees of Wiener schnitzel, duck, pork, and roast chicken, all with the proper German accompaniments. Weekly specials offer some non-German choices; one week they included lamb, veal cordon bleu, and a buttery sea bass over a delicious, chewy white-wine risotto with crisp fresh broccoli. The food is a step above other local German restaurants, and on our visit, at least, there was an authentic air to Glunz, and not in a planned-to-the-micrometer Lettuce way; maybe it was the pile of hard-drinking men at the front, the occasional blast of oompah music, or the gemütlichkeit of owner Jim Glunz, who came by to see how our meal was. —Elizabeth M. Tamny

Hopleaf5148 N. Clark | 773-334-9851

F 8.0 | S 6.5 | A 7.5 | $$ (33 reports)Bar/Lounge, European | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | Reservations not accepted

Michael Roper's Hopleaf has always been a great bar with a few tragic flaws. The staggering selection of beers with an emphasis on Belgians can be daunting for novices to navigate without assistance, and occasionally stony bartenders are sometimes unwilling or too overwhelmed to provide it. A victim of the Check, Please! phenomenon, it can get so unbearably crowded on weekends that it's advisable to avoid it entirely. Still, there's an extremely detailed beer menu that helps, and there's no place like this one to explore the deep Belgian tradition of pairing great beer with food—not to mention good food cooked with great beer, the most celebrated and enjoyable example being the mussels steamed in Wittekerke white ale, with long, crispy frites and a tangy aioli. I also like the red cabbage and endive salad, the Nueske ham sandwich on pumpernickel with Gruyere and apple coleslaw, steak frites, and hearty beef stew. But one of the coolest things about Hopleaf is its commitment to the proper way of drinking—many drafts are poured in their own glasses, designed to accentuate the special qualities of each. —Mike Sula

Laschet's Inn2119 W. Irving Park | 773-478-7915

German/Austrian, Bar/Lounge | Lunch, Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Open late: Saturday till 3, Monday-Friday till 2

rrr In the past, this little bar, bedecked with Deutschabilia, could be accused of harboring a clubby, aloof atmosphere. Maybe the addition of home-style cookery is responsible for the pervading spirit of gemütlichkeit that's replaced it. Old guys still tie it on and sing in the mother tongue at the bar, but they mingle with a younger crowd: relative shortpants working tattooed biceps with huge steins of beer or neighborhood mommies and daddies introducing offspring to their first Wiener schnitzel. There's a range of robust provender to accompany the wide selection of German beer on draft. Big steaming plates of roast veal or sauerbraten, cooked long and laden with rich gravy, are the most dependably hearty dishes, but the relatively lighter, crispy schnitzels wouldn't starve anyone either. In the middle of that scale, Königsberger klopse, soft meatballs in lemony sauce with capers, or sausage duets of glistening bratwurst, Thuringer, or veal wieners are fine fuel for long winter hibernations. Most plates are flanked by spaetzle or roast potatoes and a pile of sweet stewed red cabbage, and rounded out with a soup du jour—for example, a deliciously hammy pea soup—or a distinctly German interpretation of vegetables, e.g., a three-beaner with pineapple. These dishes are icons of meat-and-potatoes eating, which isn't to say there aren't opportunities for decadence: you can't get any more fancy-pants than the hackepeter appetizer—coarse rye bread topped with raw minced beef garnished with chopped onions and capers. Go on any day but Monday, when the kitchen is closed. —Mike Sula

The Local Option1102 W. Webster | 773-435-3136

$Bar/Lounge, American, Cajun | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2| Reservations accepted for large groups only

ESPN on the flat screen? Check. Twenty-five rotating beers on tap? Check. Golden Tee? Check. At first glance there's nothing to distinguish the Local Option from any other Lincoln Park sports bar, and maybe that's as it should be—after all, packing your place full of New Orleans tchotchkes won't make your gumbo any better. The menu offers comfort food with a focus on Cajun and creole dishes; nearly every item has a cutesy name ("Katie's Crab Cake Sandwich," "Sammy's Steak Tacos"), but the servers were so genuine I felt a pang of guilt for letting this bug me. Foodwise, anything from the deep fryer can't miss: big, juicy sea scallops, oysters, and calamari with fries and beer-battered onion rings made for a grand deep-fried meal. Other fish dishes didn't hold up as well—the grill marks on the swordfish in my fish taco were branded so deep in the flesh that nothing could mask the sharp carbon aftertaste, and the grouper in a fish sandwich was lost in a giant bun. Still, in the end the Local Option isn't a bad one. Not only does the place do pub grub proud (the burgers and wings are great), it offers a taste of the bayou without the kitsch. —Kristina Meyer

Old Oak Tap2109 W. Chicago | 773-772-0406

$$Bar/Lounge, American Contemporary/Regional| Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 3; Sunday, Tuesday-Friday till 2 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Wondering where the older siblings of the kids at the Continental—the ones with jobs and starter homes—head when they need to cut loose? Try the Old Oak Tap, a barstaurant from the owners of the Continental and Darkroom. On a recent Friday every third patron seemed to be bouncing a baby between sips of Saison DuPont. The high-ceilinged interior has been widely compared to a ski lodge, but the feel is more goth—modern, wrought-iron chandeliers in tenuous balance with the low, clean lines of the dark oak tables and pale green banquettes. The menu, created with consulting chef John Manion (Mas), is full of spiffed-up bar standards like sweet-and-spicy sriracha wings, roasted beet and goat cheese salad, and sandwiches stuffed with tilapia or five-spice pork belly. And I mean stuffed: the lump crabmeat club was an ungainly mound of crab salad with four inches of fresh ciabatta on either side and finished with chunks of bacon and avocado. It was tasty—and the accompanying fries were outstanding—but presented a serious structural challenge. Deep-fried rock shrimp glazed with chipotle aioli and a rib eye salad with romaine and avocado proved more navigable, but underneath the spicy mayo the shrimp seemed oddly flavorless. The craft beer list showcases a lot of predictable crowd-pleasers—Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Three Floyd's Alpha King, Two Brothers Cane and Ebel—but also a couple intriguing curveballs like the Magic Hat #9 Pale Ale, a light, fruity, strangely pleasant brew I'd never tried before and liked a lot by the fourth sip. Like the beer list, Old Oak overall follows a well-known formula, but if the formula works, why mess with it? There's now an enclosed heated patio. —Martha Bayne

The Publican837 W. Fulton | 312-733-9555

$$$$American Contemporary/Regional, Bar/Lounge| Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 12:30, Thursday till 11:30

Just how much pig can one city eat? It's not an unreasonable question to ask these days, when you can get belly in your ramen and headcheese in your ravioli and the hottest new restaurant in town is a shrine to pork, oysters, and beer. The latest venture from the dream team of chef Paul Kahan, sommelier Eduard Seitan, and restaurateurs Donnie Madia and Terry Alexander (the first three are the brain trust driving Blackbird and Avec, the latter two the scenemakers behind Sonotheque and the Violet Hour), in development for more than two years, the Publican finally opened in October to deafening buzz. On a busy night diners can wait upwards of an hour to knock elbows with their neighbors at communal tables, attended to by (mostly) solicitous servers who deliver platters of creamy La Quercia ham, oddments of offal, and peasant classics like cassoulet and boudin blanc in occasionally haphazard fashion. But on balance the food, under chef de cuisine Brian Huston, is pretty great. The menu changes daily but stays relentlessly on its snout-to-tail message. Rillettes were a rich jam of concentrated pork fat and flavor; dense, savory short ribs were brought into balance with a light, cheery dressing of watermelon and cherry tomatoes. Frites topped with a poached organic egg would've made a decadent breakfast. A briny Penn Cove oyster, one of six varieties on the menu that day, was silkenly sublime. And the pork rinds—gussied up bar bites—were revelatory, lighter than air yet still chewy, hit with an invigorating splash of malt vinegar. But not all the pieces of the Publican puzzle fit. A plate of roasted Spanish mackerel (with some potent green garlic) was dry and overcooked, and the dominant flavor in the sweetbread schnitzel was grease. The extensive beer list is lovingly curated, full of Belgian rarities and international cult faves, but some of the same bottles at the Hopleaf run anywhere from $1 to $7 less. And the room, an apparent attempt to marry the minimalism of Blackbird to the rustic coziness of Avec, is frustrating. Banquet-appropriate shades of taupe, beige, and brass dominate, and the long medieval table setup makes service a complicated navigation. The place can get fiercely loud. And are those little enclosed booths along the east wall meant to evoke a row of pigsties? The best of several meals I took at the Publican came on a Sunday, when the menu's given the boot in favor of a four-course prix fixe meal ($45 per person, served family style). That night the room was quiet and relaxed and the menu sanely, gracefully balanced: a bright, clean salad of persimmon, avocado, grapefruit, and bitter treviso, a plate of delicate roasted pompano, and a simple platter piled with rich, tender pork shoulder, roast chicken, a coarse, addictive cotechino sausage spiked with nutmeg, and a bit of braised lamb's tongue. Our server also happened to be the beer buyer, Michael McAvena; announcing he was bored, he plied us with samples of wild-fermented cider and the tart, lactic Lindemans Gueuze Cuvee. —Martha Bayne

Resi's Bierstube2034 W. Irving Park | 773-472-1749

$$German/Austrian, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: seven days | Open late: Saturday till 3, other nights till 2 | Reservations accepted for large groups only

Regulars like this German beer parlor for the filling traditional fare—classics like schnitzel, sausages with sauerkraut, goulash, and potato pancakes. But the real draw is the beer. In the 70s manager Richard Stober's father, Herbert, was the first bar owner in town to serve weiss beer, and while the selection has expanded and contracted since then, there are currently 15 beers on tap and more than 100 bottled. In warm weather the charming tree-lined outdoor patio is lantern lit, with picnic tables for seating, and the atmosphere is generally mellow and cheerful. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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