Tied House is that rarest of neighborhood restaurants: a destination | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Tied House is that rarest of neighborhood restaurants: a destination 

The new fine-dining annex to Schubas Tavern brings home a Trotter’s vet with stunning results.

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click to enlarge Top right: Monkfish with kohlrabi ribbons; middle left: Okinawan sweet potato with baby turnips and fromage blanc; bottom right: pork belly with salsify funnel cake

Top right: Monkfish with kohlrabi ribbons; middle left: Okinawan sweet potato with baby turnips and fromage blanc; bottom right: pork belly with salsify funnel cake

Nick Murway

The old man is angry.

His rack of lamb looks great—pink and glistening, with a roasty brown crust rubbed with ground blood-orange peel and a bone that swings out of each chop like the grip on a saber. Blood sausage lurks below amid pickled cranberries and a sweet-and-sour cranberry gastrique. But it doesn't please him.

"It's RAW!" he scolds his server in a tone one should reserve only for the willfully ignorant.

"It's medium rare," replies the young man, as agreeably as possible.

"It is NOT MEDIUM RARE!" he insists. "And even if it was, you should've informed me that's how the chef serves it—then I could decide for myself."

The lamb is whisked back to the kitchen. When it returns its beauty has died. But the old man has only begun his lecture, and spends much of his meal cataloguing to his superhumanly patient date and his super unlucky server all the flaws he finds, returning even to the lamb.

"The lamb is delicious," he says. "But the pork sausage underneath is overkill. That's what gets me about all these fancy restaurants. Too busy! Too many things! It would've been perfect with just the lamb and potatoes."

This was the scene at Tied House, the fancy restaurant attached to Schubas Tavern that replaces the old Harmony Grill. Maybe the old man yearned for the former kitchen's cilantro-lime steak tacos or Schlitz-battered cheese curds? The vegetarian poutine? The red velvet pancakes? Somehow I don't think so.

Yet restaurants of this unusual ambition don't frequently open in Lakeview. The last time it happened was four years ago, when Spanish hideaway MFK greatly improved the unpromising options. The locals aren't used to it.

This most recent act of bravery was committed by the principals behind the music video production company Audiotree, the relatively new owners of Schubas (and its attendant Lincoln Hall). They commissioned the Chicago office of Gensler, the world's largest architecture firm, which flattened Harmony Grill and built this lovely modern annex that somehow manages not to mess with the aesthetic integrity of the 115-year-old neo-Gothic tavern. And there's still an indoor passage to the club, so it's as easy as before to polish off your meal and stroll over to Schubas to catch a show. The interior practically glows with a white marble bar lit by copper fixtures. Up above, mirrors are set amid textured patterns mimicking those on the tin ceiling next door.

The chief reason people mirror their ceilings is to watch themselves have sex. I detect a similar purpose in the mirrors on the ceiling at Tied House, where from certain seats you can tilt your head upward to measure the pleasure on your face as you work through the menu by chef Debbie Gold, who spent the last couple decades cooking in Kansas City, racking up awards and accolades, but who in the late 80s also clocked in for the first two years of a new restaurant called Charlie Trotter's, when the menu was still a la carte.

You may not yet be familiar with Gold's food, but if you ever ate at Trotter's you'll recognize the combination of impeccable technique and artful plating with surprising flavors and textures and occasional exotica that so many veterans of that kitchen carried out into the world. Yet more frequently Gold takes simple, elemental ingredients to extraordinary places.

Dinner starts with bread service. Don't be like the old man. This is worth paying for. A trencher of—in increasing degrees of rusticity—Parker House rolls, seeded rye, and honey-oat porridge bread. Then there's a selection of individually priced spreads, say, a thick, supple bone-marrow-whipped butter that slows the passage of time once it enters your mouth. Or a piece of honeycomb luxuriating in a pool of creme fraiche, or a pink oval of smooth, cold chicken liver mousse. My favorite among these is an opaque green-tomato marmalade, just barely sweet yet somehow deeply fruity and savory, with the texture of something you could pack into a hash pipe.

The rest of the menu is divided among "vegetable," "sea," and "land," the dishes in each category somewhat confusingly listed by size and price point, smallest and lowest to largest and highest. It makes it somewhat difficult to contemplate an ordering strategy without some help. Luckily the servers I interacted with were well-equipped guides.

Like the marmalade, a few dishes on this menu are so unique they defy description. I'll do my best: there are torn chunks of purple sweet potato, first baked in a salt crust, then fried to order, that have an almost brownielike texture, with a concentrated tuberous sweetness, set off against barely roasted tender baby white turnips and cool fromage blanc, a nightshade dish I won't soon forget. Carnaroli porridge uses a type of rice normally found in risotto—though what is risotto but a thick porridge? The well-cooked grains are suspended in a cool beet soup with the fermented rye drink kvass, drenched in a licorice-infused cream, and topped with a beef chicharron.

On the "sea" section of the menu pieces of alabaster monkfish and pebbles of green apple are separated by thinly shaved kohlrabi ribbons, all perched on nutty toasted barley fattened with bonito-compounded butter. Under "land," jiggling lumps of rich beef marrow liberated from bone are piled under halos of malted dried onion and mounted on sweet, cream-cooked onions and fermented Swiss chard.

Other dishes are designed for dramatic effect. The sole pasta on the menu, a raviolo filed under "sea" for the light dashi broth poured over it at the table, seems like it was conceived for Instagram influencers. It's a raw, shimmering duck yolk sprinkled with black sesame seeds and toasted nori, mounted on two thin sheets of pasta sandwiching a smear of potato puree. Aim your phone at the yolk, set it for slow-mo, pierce the orb with your knife, and ogle the contents seeping into the dashi like a yellow oil spill. In a similarly executed vegetable dish, a maitake mushroom sits in a bowl next to a pile of just-scrambled egg; a measure of hot leek broth is poured over the ingredients and the yellow curds float apart. Anyone put off by this display will miss out on the concentrated allium intensity of the broth and carnal umamic meatiness of the fungus.

In fact, meatier dishes seem less likely to annoy your grandparents. A charred duck-sauce-glazed mackerel fillet that has been aged in beeswax for 12 days to concentrate flavor is laid across yellow beet coins amid dabs of horseradish sauce. A luscious slab of milk-braised pork belly sits under a squiggly funnel cake of deep-fried salsify batter. Yellow chanterelles and shredded beef short rib alongside tiny orbs of fried potato with stygian black-garlic sauce presents the most straightforward play on meat and potatoes on the menu, while a truffled pork terrine, tight layers of meat and fat over a light sauce gribiche, was, at least on the occasion I ate it, served too cold. (Or maybe the old man just got to me.)

If you're still following along, you won't be surprised to learn that Gold's desserts are as abstract as some of the savory dishes. There's a dense chocolate mousse nestled among spherified milk pearls. Marshmallowy meringue dominates a white-chocolate panna cotta with tangerine sauce, graham-cracker sweet dough, and carbonated oranges. A "wedding cake" features torn angel food adorned with red currants and rose petals, indeed like a discarded wedding dress. Sheep-milk ice cream is set in a pool of yellow custard and a pleasantly astringent goat-milk caramel.

Cocktails, identified by number, feature a crisp and bracing tequila-and-Malort concoction with the bite of ginger beer, made candy-colored by blood orange, and a rich Boulevardier, its rye spice softened with syrupy sherry. A very reasonable wine list features most bottles in the $40-$60 range, like a floral Habit Jurassic Park chenin blanc from central California or an earthy ruby-colored Division gamay noir from Oregon.

In fact, the menu's prices across the board are not unreasonable for cooking of this sophistication—I'm certain they'd be much higher if this project were planted in a poncier neighborhood than Lakeview. It is among the rarest of neighborhood restaurants. I can see how a lot of the food at Tied House might be upsetting to people who don't like surprises at dinner, but it's a destination for those of us who live for them.  v

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