Nothing much pleasant ever occurs in a trench. Long, narrow ditches are the natural habitats of trench foot, trench mouth, and trench warfare, to name just a few discomforts. Certainly nobody expects good food and good times to inhabit a trench. And yet that’s the name chosen by Heisler Hospitality’s Kevin Heisner and Matt Eisler to reboot Trenchermen, their popular Wicker Park tavern, after founding chef Patrick Sheerin stepped away at the end of last year.
Trenchermen was always a restaurant with a strong, if curious, identity, opening with the culinary dream team of Sheerin and brother Mike—who for a short time together before the latter left produced cerebral but fun food in a subterranean space that once housed a storied public bath (and following that, a storied vegetarian restaurant).
Heisler brought in Jared Wentworth to fill the, uh, trench Sheerin left behind, and in some ways it feels like a deft, nimble save for the chef, who may have typecast himself over the years at Longman & Eagle and Dusek’s but perhaps recognizes an opportunity to stretch out.
There’s some of that.
But Wentworth was also one of the first chefs in town to put pig face on a plate, and maybe that’s a signature too valuable to give up. You’ll find it in the very middle of the menu, eyeing you like a hog approaching the bolt stunner.
Pastrami-spiced pig head is one of those menu items that a certain type of diner will never fail to order. One of my dining pals refers to this kind of food (and its adherents) as “rich, big-dick man food,” and specifically with regard to this dish, an “unnecessarily large portion of rich, big-dick man food topped with an egg.” It’s a puck of unquestionably lush, fatty pork resting on a bed of sauerkraut (quenching your palate’s desperate thirst for acidity), with a deconstructionist’s plating of “rye powder” and Thousand Island. Get it? It’s a reuben!
Other high jinks ensue: sweetbreads smothered in buffalo sauce are a punch in the mouth served alongside a cooling blob of ranch stuff. There’s a reason chefs have been attempting some form of this wing riff since the days when Graham Elliot worked in a restaurant kitchen. The kids gotta have buffalo something . . . and a burger. Trench has that too, nodding at the cheeseheads among us with a “butter burger” with smoked cheddar and beef fat fries.
So in this climate of voluntary vegetable austerity (see Heisler’s terrific Bad Hunter), Wentworth’s is unapologetically a meat tooth’s menu, featuring slabs of confit pork jowl with maple-bacon caramel, and foie gras with turnip-bacon conserva, and a bacon-wrapped venison paté, technically impeccable even if it is served too cold. There’s a towering ziggurat of jiggling-tender beef short rib barely supporting a giant spinach-stuffed raviolo that squirts egg yolk like a novelty lapel pin, and a trio of dry lamb meatballs no amount of romesco sauce can ease down the gullet. In yet another fast-food gag, “Kentucky-fried” quail parts are drenched in country gravy, the bones almost delicate enough to crunch through, and served with soft braised green beans and corn bread enriched with bone marrow.
But Wentworth did toss our vegetable-craving friends a few sticks. A roasted hunk of green, fractal romanesco cauliflower with emerald-colored couscous, pickled vegetables, and thick harissa-spiked aioli is a contained pyrotechnic demonstration of flavors that I’d order over any other dish on this menu. A quivering orb of just-too-solidified burrata dusted with onion ash and drizzled with oil infused with the warm baking-spice aromas of the tonka bean is a novel approach to this oft-abused starter cheese. But a few thick slabs of tofu rubbed with the Moroccan spice blend chermoula don’t seem to recognize the presence of the lentils, mushrooms, onions, and piquant romesco sauce they share the plate with.
It was smelt season when I visited Trench, and on the menu was a trio of the bitty fish battered, fried, and served with a tiny bowl of remoulade and salmon roe. The pan-roasted cod might stick around longer. A lush, thick-flaked piece of the fish was surrounded by its white poaching medium, thick with a Portuguese-style brew of clams, chorizo, olives, potatoes, and kale. One of the more opulent dishes on the current menu features celery root agnolotti and sweet lobster meat lurking in a murky swamp of thick truffled broth that tastes like the sort of life-giving chicken soup an invalid would pray for.
Dishes like that give me pity for the type of eater who reflexively leaps toward any menu’s roast chicken. But there’s no better test of a kitchen’s fundamental abilities. No one should find any reason to complain about this one. On the other hand, the undercooked potato pave it’s served with demonstrates a need for some more advanced training.
I’m not as ambivalent about the desserts of pastry chef Angela Diaz, previously of Owen & Engine, who has a showy interpretation of the humble Saint Louis gooey butter cake, here a moist, not sodden, square of fully risen cake batter sheltered in a kind of lean-to of malt crisps anchored by a chain link of blueberry jam. It’s a take that manages to vividly evoke the best qualities of the original. Diaz incorporates that warm, embracing tonka bean essence in the batter of thin, crunchy churros that twist among coconut-basil sherbet and lemon confit. Most astonishing of all is a hot espresso pudding, built on a custard flavored with coffee and dried shiitake mushrooms, all topped with a mushroom marshmallow, green coffee ice cream, and a candied mushroom crunch. The many powerful elements all come together in a dessert that rivals the licorice-cured duck egg at Smyth and the sweet potato yogurt with miso caramel at Kitsune for most ambitious use of umami in a dessert.
The deceptively sparse wine list by Michael McAvena includes mostly intriguing and accessibly priced bottles and glasses, such as a jammy California red made from a traditional Rhone Valley blending grape (Coturri Young Carignan), and a Slovenian orange wine (Kabaj Ravan), and seems more promising than the handful of reimagined classic cocktails and seven beers on draft.
Remade by an esteemed chef with an eye toward meaty crowd-pleasers rather than brainy culinary game playing, this sunken Trench takes no more risks than it has to. I’m certain Wicker Park will eat it up. v