It’s a little-known fact that the Secret Order of Posturing Publicans requires pledge-member establishments to staff up with a minimum 65 percent of scruffy beardos, each outfitted with a tweed scally cap, before they can be awarded their ampersands. Opening well ahead of Wicker Park’s Bangers & Lace and Lakeview’s Blokes & Birds, Logan Square’s Owen & Engine was assured its pick of the hirsute chaps passed over by Longman & Eagle.
The baby of Anglophiliac Bo Fowler—who with her husband, Arden, also runs neighboring Fat Willie’s Rib Shack—this narrow stained-wood set piece recently erected on a carswept stretch of Western is similarly poised to catch the exodus from the multiplex immediately to the south, and perhaps mourners from the Mexican funeral home next door. Not exactly the most convincing spot for a tavern conceived to look like the place your great-granda hung out after the grouse hunt.
That so many restaurateurs lately have chosen to replicate one of the most maligned cuisines on the planet is certainly curious, even more so than the recent epidemic strains of burgers, pizza, and barbecue. The Fowlers have enlisted young veterans of Alinea, Trotter’s, and MK and tout the wholesome, ethical provenance of their farm supply, at least showing some determination to rise above the stereotype of this subset of gastropubbery, and perhaps also to set some stiff prices—e.g., $15 for rigid, dry house-made bangers and mash, $14 for an excellent, fat, juicy Slagel Farms cheeseburger, $39 for dry-aged rib eye with Yorkshire pudding.
Chef de cuisine Charles Burkhardt’s light, greaseless batter-fried haddock and chubby chips are pretty good, and the structurally unstable rasher-and-egg sandwich—thin crispy collops of English back bacon, aligned on a long ciabatta swiped with mayo and topped with a fried egg—is worth painting your face with. But the most delicious thing on his menu is the item least likely to appear within the confines of a British pub. That would be sous chef Jacob Bickelhaupt’s so-called rustic lasagna: dollops of rabbit confit layered between large irregular sheets of pasta drizzled with a fennel-infused orange-zest-ricotta sauce. A server (beard, check; cap, check) proudly described the pasta as to me as “hand torn,” presumably to let me know the place would never employ one of those awful steam-powered pasta tearers.
The presence of this shockingly delicious anomaly—on a menu that boasts bubble and squeak, a charcuterie plate of sausages, paté, and pork belly rillettes arrayed on a tree trunk, and an open-faced mutton-and-rutabaga meat pie with a crust thicker and drier than a powdered wig—makes me wonder what else the staff can do that might surprise Charles Dickens. But after almost two months in action, inconsistencies in execution still dog the kitchen: half-cooked Indian-style lentils with a rack of lamb, vegetables pickled with too much sugar.
And an enthusiastic awkwardness occasionally descends over the front of the house, where certified cicerone Elliot Beier(whiskers, check; headgear, check) might visit your table midmeal and insist on pouring sample pairings, with detailed tasting notes, from the long and interesting draft beer list, whether you’ve already made your own choices or not.
However the offer is timed, don’t turn down the chance to quaff a pint of one of the four cask-conditioned ales hooked up to hand-drawn beer engines. (So that’s Engine—now who’s Owen?) Also don’t miss a chance to plow into pastry chef Crystal Chiang’s chocolate banoffee, a wide parfait glass lined with rum-drunk bananas and buttery graham cracker crust and filled with toffee-threaded chocolate mousse. If everything that came out of the kitchen were as good as that, I could get with the script and overlook the fact that this “pastoral” British tavern has a great view of Burger King. —Mike Sula
Owen & Engine
2700 N. Western, 773-235-2930
The jazz lounge once housed in the basement of Pops for Champagne has been transformed into Watershed, a dim, nautically themed suburban home barroom circa 1976—a setting for events as diverse as after-tennis cocktails, key parties, and teenage booze raids. Cushioned chairs at the raised bar encourage drinkers to sink in under the ministrations of looming bartenders handing down cocktails in colored cut-glass goblets.
Those drinks, devised by Daniel D’Oliveira (formerly of Boka and Mercadito) and mixed predominantly with craft spirits from the Great Lakes region, weigh in on the sweet end of the scale, but a handful of nicely balanced potions—like the Italian Hurricane, made with Campari, mezcal, and Adam Seger’s herbal Hum spirit, or the Shake in the Hay, gin and Chartreuse with a bracing dose of celery bitters—stand out. Bartenders are well capable of going off list and mixing perfectly good adult classics like a boozy Sazerac or properly bitter Negroni.
Former chef Chris Walker (who also ran the kitchen upstairs until he moved on to Evanston’s Bistro Bordeaux this month) left behind a menu of small $3 bites—cold smoked eggplant caponata, marinated olives, Publican-style barbecue pork rinds—and larger plates under $10, like salmon rillettes, mussels, and roasted bone marrow. Execution is variable, ranging from a badly panfried Cornish hen whose skin sloughed off at the touch of a tooth to a memorable slab of lamb paté with violet mustard.
A curated selection of midwestern beers, as well as the same cheese and charcuterie selection available upstairs, all seem secondary to Watershed’s primary attraction; its womblike cuddle of stone walls, pillowy chairs, and high backed booths, a great escape from the bustle outside Tree Studios. —Mike Sula
601 N. State, 312-266-4932
It’s not easy to make the case that this town needs yet another clubby steak house, but at Chicago Cut Steakhouse managing partners Matt Moore and David Flom have done their damnedest.
The restaurant’s on the river, at the epicenter of serious expense-account dining territory, and views out the dining room windows are equaled only by the spectacle inside, where there’s some of the best beautiful-people watching in town. In the back of the house is all the infrastructure you need to prepare a perfect steak: a dry-aging room, in-house butchers, and Southbend infrared broilers, which blast their prime aged meat with 1,800-degree waves from all directions.
Out front an army of polished servers gives the new space an established feel. These pros seem unfazed by the overbooked room, the demanding clientele, and the iPad technology lesson they must give to each customer wanting a bottle of wine. The iPad wine-list app is a real innovation, but could prove to be more work than it’s worth—especially with the older set.
But even with all it has going for it, two months in, Chicago Cut still fumbles when it comes to execution. Appetizers fall between tired and disappointing. A crab and avocado cocktail tasted tinny; Alpine Cove oysters were massacred by a sloppy shucker who left shards of shell embedded in their shriveled, juiceless bodies.
Steaks and seafood entrees were better, but not by much. Despite its tiny pick that read medium rare, a porterhouse, which appeared more like a T-bone in stature, was cooked to every temperature in the book—the fillet side was rare (and quite good), but the strip side was at least half well-done. A perfectly medium-rare bone-in rib eye lacked the nutty tang of a superior dry-aged steak. And neither cut had enough salt to create the crusty goodness that is the steak-house hallmark. Surf options like sushi-grade scallops and Dover sole were just fine served dressed in various combinations of butter and lemon, but not enough to win back my culinary goodwill.
Chicago Cut may be just as good as it has to be, given its location and clientele. But given all the thought that went in to setting up the joint, it seems a shame not to shoot for better. —Kristina Meyer
Chicago Cut Steakhouse
300 N. LaSalle, 312-329-1800