I wish I could show you a photograph of the voluptuous grilled cheese sandwich I crushed at Fort Willow a few weeks back. That’s a new cocktail bar that sits across the street from the thundering tubular machinery of the Sipi Metals copper-stripping plant. The boite, from David Morton and Michael Kornick’s DMK Restaurants, is hidden off Elston on the decreasingly industrial east end of River West, dead west of the river, in fact.
The sandwich was a special by chef Deirdre Quinn, what the menu calls a “Big Bite,” a single large plate that changes every week or two. The week I tried it, it was a clever reimagination of French onion soup: two slices of buttery La Farine sourdough sandwiching hot Gruyere lava and a smear of deeply sweet, beefy caramelized onion. There were three of those sandwiches on the plate: one for me, one for the missus, and one for us to fight over. They came with a small dish of red-wine-braised shredded short rib that you were meant to dip them in. The beefy stew was a bit too thick for that, but it was still a wickedly irresistible combination.
We don’t have a photo of it, because—through its publicist—DMK decided that it wouldn’t “be able to provide photos or accommodate a photographer” after the Reader reached out to get a skilled photojournalist on the scene to shoot some hot and steamy food porn. When pressed, the publicist reported that her client wasn’t happy about a review of a certain DMK restaurant the Reader had published in the past, and therefore declined to “participate.”
Oh, no. What had we done? Was it because I faulted a poem on the wall at DMK Burger Bar that compared Nelson Algren to a turkey burger? Was it because I wrote that its companion, Fish Bar, had a cornball “P.J. McPickleshitter’s aesthetic”? It can’t be because I loved the southern-fried quail at Ada St. so much I ordered it twice. It could very well be because I described County Barbeque as an “overearnest expression of Kountry Kitsch that feels about as genuine as a Dukes of Hazzard lunch box”—unless, that is, they were unhappy with my colleague Aimee Levitt, who liked Marshall’s Landing but still observed that the pancakes and cheese fries are soggy and the pastries are sold at a “ridiculous markup.”
Whatever it was, it’s not going to stop my good friend the First Amendment from making sure you have the most vivid mental picture of the food and drink at Fort Willow that language and art together can paint. To that end, we’ve called in top-notch illustrator Chantal Bennett to render images of the grilled cheese and a few other dishes based on the restaurant’s Instagram account and my shitty iPhone snaps.
The latter couldn’t have been much help. It’s dark inside Fort Willow, which is designed to make you think you’re hanging out under a tree house, an illusion conveyed mostly by a pillar covered with wooden slats that climb to the ceiling and radiate above the room. It’s a neat trick. There’s even a rope swing dangling outside the kitchen—which after a few cocktails looks like an invitation to the emergency room.
Fort Willow is primarily a bar, with a line of tables set alongside shaded windows that barely take in Willow Street. There’s good music—say, Fela Kuti and the Filthy Six one night, vintage postpunk another. There’s a $5 cocktail happy hour every day at 5 PM, a fine time to sample beverage director Scott Koehl’s house and classic cocktails, which range from a by-the-book Japanese whiskey highball to the gingery, minty gin-and-matcha-tea-based Tree Fort Punch to the Across the Universe, with lemongrass, rum, and a ghostly whisper of absinthe.
Quinn, a former sous chef at nearby Ada St. who went on to help DMK open Marshall’s Landing, has the antidotes for these enticing poisons. Her menu is 12 dishes long—small bites, nothing more than $11, all sharable but for an oyster shooter. At this point the aforementioned Big Bite is no longer the French onion grilled cheese but some other grilled cheese sandwich of heroic proportions. According to Quinn—who seemed happy to participate in a short phone call with this critic—the Big Bite will always be some cool riff on a grilled cheese.
On paper the chef has taken the sort of unfocused global approach I usually dread—this one in particular meant to evoke a spirit of world travel. But this tack works at Andrew Zimmerman and Emmanuel Nony’s Proxi, for instance, and it works here too. The unifier is a thirst-kindling spiciness across the menu.
Chile lurks in the small bowl of boiled peanuts and dried anchovy (the latter aka Indonesian ikan bilis). The Lebanese herbal blend zatar, earthy with hyssop and tart with sumac, adorns the rich, creamy goat cheese labneh served with finger-ready mini naan. Brittle-battered double-fried cauliflower florets are draped with a slow-burning serrano and poblano hot sauce. Bites of crab salad are loaded with harissa that chases the sweet meat, while charred broccoli is saturated with peanut sauce imbued with a sneaking burn.
Sweetly glazed Korean short ribs provide a break from the cumulative heat that begins to impact brain function after eating three to four of these dishes, and thus the pain involved never rises to uncomfortable. The spicing is almost muted in a creamy coconut-vegetable curry, while meatballs in a salsa verde made with Hatch chiles is another restrained effort. Thick-skinned mochi in rotating flavors can also provide cooling, dairy-based relief, as can a loose horchata creme brulee topped with crunchy cinnamon-spiced rice noodles.
Fort Willow doesn’t call attention to itself. There’s no entrance at all on the Elston side of the building, where its address is registered—just a metal wall with an assortment of small multicolored plastic letters with magnetic backs that invites passing debauchees to make word salad. Its vivid neon sign is hidden in the recessed doorway on Willow between the bar and the garage where the building’s owner works on his collection of antique motorcycles. Yet the spot’s situated among the Doggy Paddle canine aquatic center, Local Foods, the Hideout, and Ada St. And developer Sterling Bay is coming. Clearly DMK is banking on this area transforming in a big way.
After 10 PM on Tuesdays through Thursdays, Quinn passes around complimentary snacks like pickled green tomatoes or cayenne-spiced fries tossed with piquillo pepper aioli. By virtue of its still sparsely populated location, Fort Willow can’t really be called a neighborhood bar, but that looks like it’s changing. For now it’s worth making excursions to the hidden tree house in the former factoryland just to see what new things the chef is doing with her arsenal of spices. And grilled cheese. v