“I’ll remember the food this time,” said the friend I brought to the Southern, who’d accompanied me when I reviewed this Wicker Park restaurant’s previous incarnation, Chaise Lounge. Swanky Chaise was questionably upscale: the well-dressed young things drawn to the scene on the upper deck or the spacious patio for cocktails seemed unlikely to drop $30 on forgettable entrees. The Southern’s slightly refined Dixie-inspired fare in a casual bar setting is a much better platform for chef Cary Taylor’s talents.
The menu divides up items under “bar food” and “plates,” aka appetizers and entrees, but there’s freedom to graze. In the new rough-chic atmosphere—the main room now features reclaimed wood tables, two giant booths, and more bar seating—we ate slim, tortillalike johnnycakes taco-style with soft, vinegary pork and sweet chow-chow (pickled vegetable relish) that was served in a little canning jar. “Duck Orleans” was like a slightly dry but flavorful cassoulet: an oven-to-table pot of tender duck, garlic sausage, and black-eyed peas that arrived a la Alinea with a smoking sprig of rosemary. Red pepper dressed up cheddary shrimp and grits, making for a colorful rendition of this classic. There’s a perfunctory list of wines by the glass—you’ll have more fun ordering from the wide selection of whiskey, old-fashioned cocktails, and southern beers like Abita’s Turbodog and Southern Star Bombshell Blonde Ale. —Heather Kenny
Changes at C-House, Marcus Samuelsson’s Chicago outpost in the Affinia Hotel, have been subtle but significant since executive chef Nicole Pederson (a former sous chef at Lula Cafe) took over the open kitchen last fall. She’s pared down the menu, boosted local sources, and put her own stamp on the cooking. The seafood towers, tiered platters piled with selections, are no longer available, and while gleaming copper pots still hang over the raw bar, the iced shellfish on display was oddly limited mostly to lobster parts—despite the absence of lobster on the dinner lineup. There were some missteps here: a blackboard classified oysters as “East” or “West,” but when asked about WiAnnos, listed under “West,” the friendly server told us they were from Maine (they’re from Cape Cod). Sand in some of our Rappahannocks and Pebble Beaches suggested insufficient attention had been paid to the oysters in other ways too.
The chef’s selection of three, five, or seven C-Bar tastes has been trimmed to a taste of three, but we liked them all: lively pickled herring topped with tomato-cabbage relish, buttery-mild ribbons of cured steelhead salmon with fingerling potatoes, and the signature mini tacos, crispy shells filled with yellowtail ceviche and avocado. Another winner was octopus terrine complemented by refreshing fennel-satsuma salad and slightly smoky bacon aioli. Of our two hot appetizers, we preferred sweetbreads on a smear of sunchoke puree with sunchokes, chanterelles, and red lentils; the other was a pair of nicely seared but salty sea scallops bedded on parsley root, golden raisins, and brussels sprouts.
Whole grilled trout, deboned and moistened by brown butter, came smothered in lardons, wilted Bordeaux spinach, chopped almonds, and both roasted pear slices and julienne raw pear. It vied for favorite entree with the hearty persimmon-glazed Gunthorp Farms pork chop with cubes of brown bread, roasted shallots, and baby spinach. Poached sturgeon—three little two-bite pieces—was stingy by comparison, and neither the piles of peekytoe crab and fennel nor the tidbits of pickled crab apple that accompanied it compensated for fishy undertones.
Toni Roberts remains the pastry chef, and her meltingly good Meyer lemon pudding cake was brilliantly set off by segments of blood orange and a blood orange granité. I also loved her ultracreamy ice creams: deep dark chocolate, restrained pumpkin, and surprising grapefruit. Goodies from the Candy Bar have been a big deal since C-House opened, but the $2 pair of banana-butterscotch chocolates struck me as the sort of sweets classy restaurants usually give you for free. The pricey international wine list is seafood friendly, and Pederson has started offering appealing prix fixe beer dinners. —Anne Spiselman
Last fall, after Shawn McClain bowed out of Custom House, his partners Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky and Peter Drohomyrecky made a change that seemed almost desperate: they split their physically unaltered high-end steak house into two concepts, a casual “tavern” up front and fine dining in the recesses of the main dining room. But Custom House, located in the South Loop’s Hotel Blake, has a captive audience of both diners wielding expense accounts and those with more modest means—this was a smart move. To accommodate this dual clientele they tapped Aaron Deal, who spent years racking up national accolades at Tristan in Charleston, South Carolina. And for the most part he seems more than capable of satisfying both ends of the spectrum.
There’s actually a significant amount of overlap on the menus, both of which include among their starters a relatively light, bisquey she-crab soup (one of several nods to the low country) that’s still rich enough for two to share and a salad of chopped, grilled escarole, soft-boiled egg, and breakfast radishes in a brazen dressing rich in garlic and anchovy.
On the menu in the service-oriented dining room, I’m less wowed by the main attractions, like the stringy venison osso buco or underseasoned arctic char, than by their imaginative accompaniments—wild rice cooked with chocolate and ancho chiles and chickpea spaetzle with Marcona almonds, respectively. One dish, however, makes the angels sing: “duck rice,” paella rice cooked in duck stock tossed with confit, sprinkled with toasted candied hazelnuts, and topped with foie gras mousse that melts to coat each grain like “the butter on the waffle” as one leering passerby remarked.
In the bar, with flat-screen TVs overlooking a handful of tables and bar stools, deviled eggs and raw oysters are the nibbly prelude to more indulgent dishes like Wagyu beef tartare or a crispy breaded fried cylinder of unctuous pig head terrine atop pickled vegetable slaw and deviled quail egg. These can be augmented by mini cast-iron crocks of simple vegetable sides such as bacon-maple brussels sprouts or heirloom field peas. The lauded Custom House burger of prime steak and short rib hasn’t disappeared and is offered alongside a Reuben with house-made corned beef.
There are hits and misses on both sides—a mushy, underseasoned sturgeon croquette is a low point on the bar menu—but one consistency across both spaces is the joint’s ace in the hole. The desserts of Bryce Caron, a Blackbird alum, astound me in the their compositional complexity and outright deliciousness: long, sugar-dusted sticks of custardy “fry bread” atop a root beer syrup with pineapple and bourbon-vanilla ice cream (my new favorite doughnut); an elaborate molded banana-cream bavarois with a tangy buttermilk chocolate quennelle and molasses ice cream; a perfect cube of dense brown butter cake with hazelnuts and huckleberry aigre doux. That’s a pastry chef to keep an eye on. —Mike Sula