For years developers and dreamers battled for possession of Pilsen’s gorgeous Thalia Hall, built in 1892 by European expat John Dusek, a sort of Fitzcarraldo of Chicago’s new Bohemia who spent an exorbitant $145,000 to reproduce Prague’s Old Opera House at the corner of 18th and Allport. Dusek is long gone, but among his successors is Empty Bottle impresario Bruce Finkelman, who snatched the Romanesque revival building out of foreclosure last summer and has come close to restoring it to its former glory. He’s not there yet. The upstairs performance space is still under construction, but in the meantime on the ground floor there’s Dusek’s, a spacious, beer-centric tavern helmed by chef Jared Wentworth of Logan Square’s Longman & Eagle, and in the basement there’s Punch House, a nicely priced cocktail bar dedicated to classic and new variants of batched liquor, sugar, fruit, and spice.
A quick glance at the menu might foster the impression that Wentworth has just exported Longman to the south side in order to offer young, white gentrifiers respite from tacos and carnitas. There are some obvious and not so obvious similarities between the two restaurants, particularly on the meaty hemisphere of Dusek’s menu, which features an indulgent proportion of organs and off cuts, plus the requisite seared foie gras, roasted chicken, and, of course, a burger built around Slagel Farms beef—this one a tribute to the Minneapolis cheese-stuffed glory known as the Juicy Lucy.
And then there are the boneless duck wings, in which you can perceive the ghosts of two well-known Longman dishes: Wentworth’s crispy tete de cochon and his buffalo frog legs. Similar to the pig face, these ceremonially named “wings” are sculpted from shredded meat that’s rolled into cylinders and fried crispy, then slathered in buttery hot sauce and served with a relatively robust “aerated” ranch dressing, which needs a better descriptor lest it turn off anyone with a reflexive skepticism of culinary foams. In a field crowded with clever riffs on buffalo wings, this is one of the best I’ve encountered. A similarly executed crispy pigtail draped in a jiggly quail egg alongside an almost-Lyonnaise salad is less successful—the shredded pig meat is dense and dry and unrelieved by the tiny yolk.
There is plenty of variety on this meaty half of the menu to keep the resolutely carnivorous interested, from the prettily plated General Tso’s sweetbreads—which approximate the texture of takeout boneless chicken and are strewn with ribbons of pickled daikon and dressed with a sharp, delicately sweet sauce—to the dauntingly sized plate of choucroute, laden with tangy kraut scattered among potatoes, pickled apples, thick slices of garlic sausage, a duck leg and thigh confit, and a quivering slab of pork belly. It’s a nod to the fortifying stuff on which the neighborhood’s long-departed Slavs might once have fueled.
But Dusek’s is its own creature. The beverage program focuses on two dozen craft beers on draft (as opposed to Longman’s deep whiskey bank), and there is a significant seafood orientation, beginning with a half-dozen varieties of not always expertly shucked oysters. These are redeemed by a fillet of flaky hake, half-submerged in a powerfully rich, buttery chowder that’s swimming with fingerling potato coins and strips of pickled leeks. Seared, oil-rich mackerel fillets with fluffy, Parisian-style sweet potato gnocchi are arranged among carefully crosshatched chanterelle mushrooms and tiny diced pickled golden beets, lending an upscale note to the proceedings. That note is echoed in other details, such as amuses-bouche that initiate each sitting—maybe a bite of poached shrimp with pickled carrot, or a slurp of smoked oyster soup with tomato jelly.
A cuttlefish steak arranged next to slices of braised beef cheek arrived on one visit with the latter tough and leathery and the former blasted into perdition by the wood-fired oven. But the same brick furnace reliably turns out an impressive Moroccan-style tagine of Israeli couscous topped with curried, nearly raw vegetables. It’s in opposition to the fussier plates on the menu—as are the Thanksgiving-casserole-style green beans, braised with vinegar and bacon and topped with deep-fried shallots.
A separate menu of bar snacks, also available downstairs at Punch House, features bites such as dense, funky, deep-fried brandade balls, roasted olives, and blue crab dip.
You can access the dessert menu downstairs too. It’s an intriguing list from Longman pastry chef Jeremy Brutzkus, with appealing arrangements in line with the more formally plated dishes. A dense chocolate bar resting on a smear of “Coke cream” is served with pretzel ice cream encased in a salted chocolate shell, while irregular chunks of malted English pudding (cake) are dabbed with thick walnut cream and accompanied by fromage blanc sorbet and marshmallow fluff.
Dusek’s is reasonably priced, a bit cheaper than Longman, and clearly cheaper than nearby Nightwood (though not as inventive). You could imagine it capitalizing on some of the latter’s spillover, as well as those in the neighborhood with more modest budgets. Those folks should also be happy with Punch House, situated below like a 70s-era, nautically themed man cave and offering $8 batched punches that include a brisk, refreshing, whey-washed brandy milk punch and Sanyal punch, which incorporates curry-infused pisco, Darjeeling tea, and chile.
Apart from the roasted-chile churros on the dessert menu, there’s little to remind anyone that Pilsen, despite its encroaching gentrification, is still a Mexican neighborhood. Observers more entrenched in the community than I have observed that the redevelopment of the entire Thalia Hall complex will mark some kind of milestone in the neighborhood’s progress. In no way am I convinced that’s good for everyone affected, but Dusek’s isn’t a bad start.