Recycled barn wood, honeyed lighting (not pictured: flat-screen TVs)
Recycled barn wood, honeyed lighting (not pictured: flat-screen TVs) Credit: Andrea Bauer

There’s a lot going on—from tacos to pierogi, poutine to fried alligator—on Central Standard’s sprawling menu. But I guess that’s the point, because there’s also a lot going on foodwise in the entire central standard time zone, the disparate geographic swath from which this River North enterprise takes its inspiration. On its website, Central Standard is described as “a journey across an entire time zone” to “destinations from the North Woods to the Deep South.” Still, no amount of recycled barn wood and honeyed lighting can overcome the restaurant’s clubby decor and the glow of its flat-screen TVs, which is to say that you won’t particularly feel like you’ve journeyed anywhere. Well, maybe Dallas.

In an attempt to create a less schizophrenic dining experience, my companion and I restricted our choices to the southeastern reaches of the time zone. The house bacon—glazed with apricot and ancho chile and served with fava beans and roasted cippolinis—was surprisingly delicate and massively portioned. At $10 for two slabs of delectable, barely cured pork, it was an entree-size starter, and it paired well with the Southern Breakfast. That’s a stiff bourbon cocktail with candied bacon, blackberries, maple syrup, and ginger beer, which sounds cloying but was actually superbalanced and immensely drinkable.

The Central Standard Board—we opted for six choices from a list of 28 spreads, meats, cheeses, relishes, jams, and pickled stuff—was, at $15, another bargain. Our server correctly steered us to the chicken foie gras mousse and the Indianapolis-made Smoking Goose Gin & Juice lamb salami. Chowchow and pickled green beans offset the fattiness just enough.

Entrees are split into two categories—”from the fisherman” and from “the farmer”—and we chose one from each. Shrimp and grits fell a little flat: the dish was overpowered by salt, and the gravylike sauce, though not inauthentic in concept, was too muddy. Grilled duck breast, on the other hand, was a knockout, perfectly seared medallions of breast atop a jumble of rich, shredded confit leg; snappy, bitter mustard greens; and a sweet-and-sour kumquat demi-glace with little slices of the citrus fruit.

Close your eyes and you just might be in New Orleans. Or at least Birmingham.