For better or worse, former Gage chef Dirk Flanigan is largely responsible for bringing back the Scotch egg over the last decade, as Chicago writhed in the throes of its love affair with gastropubbery. The snack quickly proliferated all over town, and for every molten ovum core jacketed in crispy, hot sausage there were a dozen fryer-petrified fossils as rock solid as a carbon-frozen Han Solo.
Flanigan moved on from the great work he did at the Gage and the late Henri, and while he gets his own new French-Italian restaurant in order he’s brought a Scotch egg to the menu at Breakroom Brewery. The new Irving Park brewpub is housed in the erstwhile break room of the Heineman Bar Company, a custom-bar concern that somehow managed to open this big, busy brewery and restaurant while constructing splendid wooden bars for the likes of Revolution Brewery and Old Town Social, filming a reality TV show (Epic Bar Builds) for the Discovery Channel, and fighting a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by a former customer.
Brewery kitchens are like pitchers—there are reasons they don’t hit well. I can’t think of many around town that do food as well as they do beer. For the brief period of time John Manion was at Goose Island Brewpub, it was good if problematic. Three Floyds Brewpub was great under Mike Sheerin. But for the most part brewery food usually exists as an afterthought to the suds.
Flanigan’s role as a consultant means he has less sway over the outcomes than an executive chef with more skin in the game. He’s put together a menu that looks intriguing on paper, so much so that a number of dishes require more than a little explanation from servers. There’s a rib eye that’s apparently sliced by a wood saw. Cut spuds are soaked overnight in beer before becoming french fries (though it’s to little discernible effect). And “scrumpets” are what fish sticks would be if they were made with shredded lamb.
The preponderance of snacky, meaty, beer-friendly foods is practically a given, so maybe that’s how I got snookered by the Scotch egg. Had I read the menu more carefully, I might at least have been prepared for it. Served atop a pile of tired-looking mixed greens, the egg so dwarfed conventional ones that my sidekick wondered aloud what animal could have laid one so large. Another surprise was in store when we realized that the menu’s mysterious mention of “lentil falafel” referred to the pasty, sausageless mantle that encircled the egg. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian beer drinkers deserve Scotch eggs too, I suppose.
But it’s emblematic of other eggs laid across Breakroom’s menu. Tough cubes of pork belly are stacked with chunks of wan watermelon, which in early May seems like a forerunner of our catastrophically warmed future. Charcuterie “on wood”—the menu’s description—lacks variety, featuring only a few slices of country paté and a gob of chicken liver mousse. A jar of steak tartare has woodsmoke blown into it in an attempt to channel Alinea circa 2005.
It’s frequently a toss-up between conceptually flawed dishes such as these and executional errors from a kitchen you’d expect to be better trained. A wide-eyed runner warned me that the house-made pickles were extraordinarily hot, but they were neither spicy nor pickled, their virgin texture suggesting the carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, and asparagus stalks could have been pulled from the ground the previous day.
Such disappointments abounded during my meals. Both basic fish-and-chips and chicken thighs with biscuits and sausage gravy arrived almost aggressively underseasoned. A burger ordered medium rare was cooked to battleship gray. Chicken soup, while generously loaded with shredded poultry, had extraordinarily wide noodles that were barely cooked. And the mashed potatoes were so watery you could drink them.
Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the amply portioned food at Breakroom is that while much effort is made to incorporate the brewery’s main product into the dishes, it rarely tastes that way. A large braised pork shank is served in a pool of greasy polenta said to have been made with stout, though you’d be hard-pressed to detect any. Same goes for the dry, crumbly, tough biscuits that accompany the chicken thighs—you’d never guess they’re made with spent grain. Across-the-board underseasoning might not be helping this situation. The one dish I was certain had been made with beer—dense, highly emulsified wild-boar-and-juniper sausages with roasted vegetables—turned out to be cooked in white wine.
These low flavor profiles might come about because the Breakroom’s beers themselves aren’t terribly distinctive. The selection changed frequently over the course of my visits, which bodes well for its freshness. But while much mention is made of International Bittering Units and the varieties of hops used from beer to beer (Breakroom does seem to be in thrall to hopheads), they’re food friendly but forgettable. The most distinctive variety, a Berlin-style weiss sour, has so little depth it’s better ordered with one of the optional fruit syrups on hand. Fortunately the beers are served in five- as well as 13-ounce portions, which allows for a quick change of direction if a poor choice is made.
The most impressive thing about Breakroom is the space itself. Its rear windows look in on the woodshop and all the fearsome machinery within, and the massive 40-foot bar built of petrified wood and sapele (a sustainable alternative to mahogany) has its own windows with a view of the brewing tanks. But if those sights fail to move you, there are flat-screen TVs to distract your attention from the impressive design and the ever more dissipated yawping of your companions. v