It isn’t Alexander Brunacci’s fault that we live in a city that’s afraid of food trucks and runs down outlaw eloteros, fruteros, and tamaleros at whim. But it does smart a bit to see a full-service restaurant pairing wines to “elevated street food” in a city historically hostile to the real thing.
That’s the stated idea behind the Peasantry, Brunacci’s follow-up to Franks ‘n’ Dawgs, the haute hot dog shop he opened two years ago with ex-Blackbird chef Joe Doren and, in a consulting capacity, his brother Frank, the opening chef at Sixteen in the Trump Tower.
Then again, much of what appears on the menu bears no clear resemblance to street food of any kind, particularly that of the poor, developing countries Brunacci, an Australian expat, says he appreciates most. Sure, you can pretty much make anything you want on a food truck, but I defy anyone to track down a cognac-BBQ frog leg in any city outside the developed world. Let’s say the connection to street food here in Lincoln Park is tenuous at best.
OK, there’s an elote, if by elote you mean a shucked ear of corn piled precariously with a matrix of chicharron, hazelnuts, and blue cheese that you’d have to scrape off the sidewalk if you were eating it on the street. This was an appealing-looking special one evening in early July (it also appears on the Peasantry’s brunch menu). But the awkwardly mounted topping did little to deter my suspicion that the corn was prematurely picked. It was a flat, dull-flavored ear, resembling nothing you’d expect at the top of the season. The menu bears the usual proviso about local-when-possible sourcing, but this tasted like something harvested in February in another hemisphere.
I encountered a number of equally disappointing executional and conceptual failures across this menu, which to Brunacci and Doren’s credit doesn’t underestimate the neighborhood’s adventurousness. There is precisely one beef dish on the menu (a steak and marrow burger) and three chicken dishes—but two of them are gizzards and livers, respectively. The rest is a compellingly varied collection of odd cuts from formerly unglamorous protein sources—octopus, rabbit, lamb, duck—some illustrated in oversize graffiti on the walls. (But what? No kangaroo burger?) In more innocent times we might have called the Peasantry a gastropub, as the beverage program, apart from a tight list of ten wines, is focused on a selection of mostly local, if bottled, craft beers.
All right, gyros are street food too. But two of those offered—starring pork belly and octopus—are served atop a Singaporean griddled flatbread. So why not call a roti a roti? The latter offering is a Spanish referent of cephalopod, fingerling potatoes, and chorizo, drizzled in a sweet grape gremolata. A third “gyro” features a pile of fried chicken nuggets atop an American-style, corn-studded pancake: chicken and waffles, sort of, with textureless poultry coated in what’s described as chocolate-chile batter, garnished with juliennes of soft, red-skinned apples and a scant drizzle of maple-flavored yogurt. What this gyro needs is a healthy splash of syrup and some acidity to cut through its bulk. But it and the octopus illustrate a pattern at work: sweet fruit garnishes that often tip the dishes out of balance. There’s a cannellini bean and asparagus salad sweetened with raisins and date chutney and a minty green sauce that tastes like a mentholated Dreamsicle. There are duck wings—cooked sous vide with cherry broth, then deep-fried and served with cherry mustard—that disintegrate off the bone. And burgers are overburdened by shallot marmalade or candied apricots.
On second thought those burgers are among the best things on the menu and at least hew close to their classic forms. A dense hanger steak and bone marrow patty is delicious and powerfully beefy (if too salty), its shallot marmalade balanced by Manchego and pickled cauliflower. And a duck burger, spiced with coriander and blanketed by the apricot, is brought back from the brink with a luscious slab of foie gras torchon. Similarly, a feta and pickled-artichoke flatbread with chunks of meaty lamb tongue is another success in restraint.
On the occasions I visited the Peasantry it was mobbed, so I wonder if—even this far in—the kitchen is having trouble keeping pace. The chicken livers I ate, marinated in honey and sherry, were undercooked and sinewy, and an order of gizzards was overfried to the extent that the protein was indistinguishable: the cornmeal crust could have contained any sort of meat. Both of these dishes represented a loss in the overarching campaign to get Lincoln Parkers to eat more guts. Further, the rabbit shreds braised in red wine that dressed a bowl of tagliatelle soured the clump of sticky noodles, and a shrimp and lobster roll, said to contain bacon and a preserved-lemon aioli, was underseasoned and underfilled.
For some reason the lobster roll is included among the sausages, and it’s served on the same terrific Nicole’s bun used at Franks ‘n’ Dawgs—which might have had something to do with the shellfish’s absence of consequence. The other few carryovers include the Tur-doggin turkey sausage, a brussels sprout salad, and the “triple truffle fries”—waffle-cut, undercooked, and polluted by truffle butter, truffle salt, and truffle oil. The use and overuse of truffle-flavored seasoning is always an ominous sign that things have been needlessly overcomplicated.
How all of this adds up to street food I can’t say. But elevated? More like muddled. Even in Chicago, the best street food remains on the street.