Let’s make a sandwich out of food writing cliches. Start with a slab of decadent, a schmear of luscious, a soupcon of over-the-top. A sprinkle of artery clogging, or perhaps heart stopping. Et voila: we’ve built the Montreal, a literal sandwich on the menu at Dillman’s, Brendan Sodikoff’s new not-a-Jewish-deli. Served on rye, the Montreal is something the menu counsels you (with an exclamation point!) to share, though it doesn’t suggest with how many (the correct answer is “rugby team”). It’s bologna, pastrami, corned beef—and foie gras, for good measure. In the interest of sport, we came up with a few supercilious complaints—which layer is which; how do you know?—until there was enough meat in our mouths to keep us from talking.
Sodikoff, like Paul Kahan a sort of Midas of local restaurateurs, has hit upon a hell of a business plan—take what people like and make it really well—applying it to individual foodstuffs (steak, doughnuts) as well as broader concepts (Parisian lounge, faux diner). At Dillman’s the food is pure id: cured meat, schmaltz, creme fraiche, cheese, bone marrow, a menu of “strong drinks.” One of the best salads is hardly a salad; rather, it’s a mound of wonderful smoked whitefish nestled inside half of an avocado, with some lettuce on the side, like an afterthought, finished with a light lemon vinaigrette.
The id bit is true of most trendy places, I suppose—fat being the new, uh, fat—but the difference here is the thoughtfulness, and for that matter the specificity: “Jewish” hasn’t really caught on in Chicago as far as concerns haute cuisine. (Maybe restaurateurs are reluctant to part with their pork belly.) This spot was initially billed as a more straightforward “deli,” but it doesn’t have a grab-and-go case, nothing is premade, and, as Sodikoff told the Reader shortly after Dillman’s opened, some visitors were “beyond confused.” Maybe they still are. Attendance was sparse on the nights I visited—both weeknights, admittedly, but that’s normally not sufficient to keep the flocks away from River North’s flashier asshole emporia. Anyway, their loss. The crowd here was smaller and by comparison more diverse, in the sense that there were old white people in addition to young white people.
The dining room—it used to be an actual deli: Steve’s—is split in two. One side, with checkered floors and red-vinyl motif, is more to form, if your neighborhood bagel-and-lox place happens to be lit by two massive chandeliers. The other side is like an old library, but a library with really comfortable chairs, and where you can eat and drink, both of which activities I recommend. There’s a bar, too. The cocktails, mostly classic whiskey-bitters combinations, are also what’s de rigueur at the moment, but so what? That’s because they’re great. You could accompany your Montreal, for instance, with a Toronto, that blessed marriage of rye and Fernet—they do a killer version here. The Brown Derby, said on the menu to contain bourbon, grapefruit, and honey, beguiles with the depth of its flavor, the whiskey and the citrus bringing out each other’s best bitter elements. A deli-esque Cel-Ray soda is enlivened with gin. And then there’s the pickle backs, for $6 a pop. We partook one night. As they say: When in Rome, YOLO.
In addition to the aforementioned whitefish salad, starters include a Kubrickian matzo ball, rising forbiddingly over the lip of a bowl holding a rich chicken broth improved further by little charred onions; plump pickled herring on rye; and the best chicken liver I’ve had, chopped rough and served with a ramekin of schmaltz and generously greasy toast. Caesar salad has a dressing so intensely flavorful—so lemony, so fishy, so garlicky—that it needn’t be poured on, and this kitchen, which seems so like the sort of place that’d really turn a hose onto a salad, is careful with it. Potato chips take the place of the croutons. There are in addition smaller side plates: cheese and smoked meat a la carte, extra bread, fried egg, potato salad, and a couple of really bangin’ potato pancakes, sized like hockey pucks but a good deal more pleasant to nibble on.
A Reuben is pleasant enough, too, though there’s so much meat on it you hardly register the toppings—a pity, because I imagine this to be a place with a textbook sauerkraut. (Pickles, in this vein, are great—get the full-sour.) The menu of entrees is solid, in the sense of, like, that’s how your digestive system will experience them: French dip, chicken potpie, veal schnitzel, cheese dumplings. Short rib borscht seemed . . . related to borscht, in the sense that it was red. (Was it, though? It was dark.) Otherwise it tasted like meat that had been simmering for days in a pot of demi-glace—meltingly tender, in the hack vernacular (mea culpa!)—smothered in creme fraiche and served with bone marrow and toast, just in case the short rib alone was not enough. It’s decadent, yes. But gimme a break, OK? I don’t come down to where you work and slap the foie gras sandwich out of your mouth.