I made the mistake of inviting a dieter to Au Cheval. In this line of work that’s a bush league move under any circumstance, but at prolific chefpreneur Brendan Sodikoff’s ostensible diner, primely located at the northern gateway to the Randolph restaurant row, it’s cruel and unusual punishment.
There’s no chance someone on a restricted caloric intake can leave such a place without assuming a significant burden of guilt. Further, someone unaccustomed to sudden surges in fat and carbs will surely suffer physically. Together, mind and body revolt.
Don’t let that keep you away. I should have known better. Still, it’s worth noting that the meal we shared wasn’t even the most decadent one I put together at Sodikoff’s fourth venture in two years (counting his River North fried dough shrine Doughnut Vault). I offered mild criticism of the risk-averse but otherwise solid Gilt Bar, Sodikoff’s first restaurant after a career distinguished by stints with Lettuce Entertain You and heavyweights like Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse. I described Gilt as sort of a gastropub for the timid. But there is nothing for weak eaters at Au Cheval, the closest thing Chicago has to Montreal’s glutton mecca, Au Pied de Cochon.
That’s not to suggest it’s nearly as Francophilic as APdC—or even as much as Sodikoff’s own Maude’s Liquor Bar, which has a similar Belle Époque Parisian whorehouse veneer. APdC has nearly a dozen foie gras dishes on its menu at a given time, after all, while Au Cheval’s has merely four. (It also has a much smaller menu.) In any case, Sodikoff’s dominant culinary mascot is not fatty duck liver, but the humble egg.
This is perhaps where you can ignore the air quotes that otherwise accompany the description of Au Cheval as a “diner.” Nearly a quarter of the menu incorporates chicken ova in some way. The name itself, despite its equine association, is culinary slang for putting a fried egg on something, like a rider on horse (or a la holstein, if you’re Deutsch).
The most popular expression of this seems to be the fries, a pile of crispy batons draped in a sunny-side up cackleberry, sprinkled with chives and peppers, tubs of mornay and aioli ready to mingle their contents with the runny yolk. At the opposite extreme, a delicate, lacy hash brown raft is smothered in duck-heart gravy, little knobs of pulmonary tissue adding a gutsy gaminess and muscular texture. You don’t want to sit around admiring this glorious mess. Immediate comparisons to the Slinger arise, but it’s more like poutine in the way hot liquids will quickly degrade its best qualities.
There are, basically, eggs with everything: you can have your hen nuts scrambled with foie gras, poached in a midnight special of chilaquiles, nestled among bacon and escarole in a salad, laid atop a croque madame, or shaken in a cognac sidecar. And if that somehow leaves you feeling unfulfilled, for $2 a fried egg can accessorize your brat and smashed potatoes, your 38-ounce foie-and-apple-larded pork porterhouse, or your housemade bologna sandwich.
That sandwich is the poster child for the most potentially crippling trait of the food at Au Cheval: gigantism. It’s a wobbling skyscraper of spice-spackled, griddled pink meat ribbons, oozing melted cheese on a shellacked egg bun, a depraved and magnificent wonder no one in their right mind should attack alone.
The cheeseburgers tower too; thin, stacked, 30s-style style patties—a single means a double, a double means a triple—cooked through but juicy. In these days of burger fatigue, they stand among the most unique and well played in recent memory. Even one of the few concessions to a body’s need for roughage—a Cheops of shaved fennel, carrot, red cabbage, and apple mined with gobs of blue cheese—looms precariously over the table, a provocation to your stomach space.
You’ll find more horizontal but no less supersized plates in the short rib stew, chunks of tender if dry beef, precisely cut (a la Keller) and stewed bourguignon-style with pearl onions and carrots, plated alongside a dino-sized marrow bone with stacks of Texas toast. Unlike the city’s plague of small plates that inspire feeding frenzies among unsatisfied groups, Au Cheval platters demand sharing: an enormous wedge of pork sausage wrapped in cabbage and larded superfluously with foie gras; a luxe, Dutch oven-cooked Polish golabki; a heaping mound of honeyed, ruby red General Tso’s chicken—more like a milder take on Korean gampongi—that’s not as hot, sweet, or fried as hard, but is a better class of bird, all dark meat with glassy skin.
Au Cheval is the first of many reimagined diner concepts headed our way—the first original one, anyway. But what sets it apart are the ways in which you’d never imagine it in an Edward Hopper painting or a Tom Waits song, with its dimly lit zinc topped counter and reel to reel hi-fi. There are no pies or egg creams—just Black Dog gelato plopped in a housemade root beer float, or a mille feuille for two, a high stack of sugared puff pastry sandwiching billows of sweet vanilla cream.
Greasy spoons don’t curate classic cocktails or boast 30 craft beers on tap either, but more importantly Au Cheval doesn’t keep diner hours, not past 2 am, anyway—at least not yet. My only wish is that Sodikoff and his crew take it 24/7: the smallest AM hours are when this powerfully sinful, powerfully restorative food could do its most important work.