An interesting thing happened in Lincoln Square recently. And when it comes to restaurants, that’s a sentence one rarely hears about the neighborhood.
Now, just hold on to your double-wides, stroller moms. I love your turf, what with the 40 varieties of smoked sausage at Gene’s and the tiny Thai grocery and video store PNA, which sits among the largest concentration of Thai food in the city (some of it the very best in the city). God bless the chocolate chip cookie dough egg roll at the Davis Theater’s Carbon Arc Bar, the kolokythakia at Barba Yianni, the cozy lodge in the Bavarian forest that is Huettenbar, and the marvelous hand-pulled noodles at Jibek Jolu. Props to Taco in a Bag. Harvestime Foods! Bistro Campagne! Monti’s! New Asia! Nhu Lan! There’s a great spice shop. There’s a store that sells mostly just vinegar. There’s a boutique entirely devoted to the delicate art of male facial grooming. I go to Lincoln Square a lot. What’s not to love?
But you can’t tell me Lincoln Avenue between Foster and Sunnyside isn’t, in many respects, the very definition of middle-of-the-road. So when the people behind one of the neighborhood’s more creditable establishments, Gather, decide to open a new restaurant right next door to the flagship, you have to take notice.
That’s not to say you won’t be touched by doubt. Will their nachos be a thousand times more sublime than those down the street at Monty Gaels? Are the wings more crispy than those at Gideon Welles, a mere half block north? Are their flatbreads more artisanal than the ones at Nick’s Pizza & Pub, due west on Montrose?
The Warbler raises concern just by offering these items—an apparent greatest hits of the banal bar food so many mediocre spots on the strip traffic in. But that’s the menu chef Ken Carter and his business partner, David Breo, have adopted for their more casual, inclusive sophomore restaurant. Carter is a chef who came into his own at Charlie Trotter’s near the denouement of that restaurant’s remarkable 25-year run. After that he clocked time downtown at the late Cibo Matto at the Wit. Four years ago, when he and Breo opened Gather, it was a place the neighborhood embraced for the chef’s upscale platings as much as for the burger, which also attracted people who didn’t even live in the neighborhood. I didn’t appreciate that burger at first, but I came around to it too.
Is there anything else on the Warbler’s menu that’s as exceptional as the burger? Let’s see, among the don’t-call-it-pizza (er, “flatbreads”) and the appetizers, vegetables, salads, and grains, and a mere four entrees listed, there are things I’ll continue to think about long after this review lines the figurative birdcage of my brain.
Here’s one: a bowl of barley. “Creamy” barley, the words beckon. The bowl is possessed of such an engrossing array of textures—molten tamari-cooked egg, cool pureed cucumber, verdant tahini-slicked gomae, crunchy black sesame, the bacony seaweed seasoning dulse, and slices of soy-and-sesame-slicked scallions—I startled myself with sudden cravings for it days later. It’s sensational.
Here’s another one I can’t forget, one I assumed would just be a throwaway: a roasted broccoli side dish, plated with careful thought to composition and contrast, raw shavings of brassica stalk playing a crunchy counterpoint to horseradish-celery root slaw and lemon-saturated Greek yogurt set off by an everything-bagel seasoning mix.
There’s a great cauliflower dish on the menu too, crunchy battered florets shimmering with a mildly sweet ponzu glaze with cashews, sesame seeds, and pickled red onion.
Surprises like this made me wish I didn’t have to reserve digestive space for Carter’s meatier bites.
Available as a single or double, the Warbler’s cheeseburger is a compromise between smashed and tavern styles, a resolutely thin, almost parsimonious patty with not-quite-crispy edges, a coarse grind, and a rare center. All of which would be fine if it weren’t overwhelmed by a dry dome of briochelike bun, which crumbles under the pressure of a stern glare and fails to maintain structural integrity under the moisture of pickle and hothouse tomato.
On each occasion I visited the Warbler it was packed well into the late evening, so I suspect the half roast chicken I was served, ghastly pallid and with rubbery skin, was a sloppy mistake from an overwhelmed kitchen rather than an aesthetic choice. But I stumbled over other executional errors that made me wonder how long it should take a kitchen to hit its stride. I encountered oversalted and oversauced cacio de pepe with dense, choreful whole-wheat bucatini. A near liquid brandade dripped from the potato chips inexplicably floating atop its surface. With so many high-quality plant-based dishes on the menu, I’m at a loss why bland deep-fried tofu slabs in a watery green curry would be considered an appropriate bone to throw to the vegetarians.
That said, other dishes set a baseline for variety and basic satisfaction that ought to widen the net the Warbler is casting. A provolone-stuffed sausage with mustard, kraut, and pickled red onion would go down a lot easier if its attendant grilled rye bread weren’t so dry. Korean-style fried chicken wings are a sweet, brittle-battered surprise even if their muted kick must be bolstered with the odd but not ineffective squirt of lime.
And the aforementioned puffy flatbreads, while not the most transcendent crusts in the city, are at least the most acceptable pizzas west of Spacca Napoli (and south of Jimmy’s), with toppings ranging from bacon and egg to artichoke and squash puree to chicken sausage and garlic cream.
The sprawling menu is all focus at dessert, where there’s naught but a skillet cookie, a chocolate-peanut butter brownie, and a carrot cake so heroic it obviates the desire for any other choices. Sliced flat, it possesses a density more like quickbread than traditional leaden carrot cake. Its butter-pecan ice cream topknot is mined with massive chunks of praline, and it’s all doused in caramel sauce for a finish that transcends the middling reputation of this dessert archetype.
Cocktails? The Warbler has those too. All named for birds, some are subtler than others. The Rose Finch is a refreshing sparkler of gin and pink vermouth that carries not a hint of the Sichuan citrus shrub noted on the menu, while the Songbird is a huge departure from the late Bar DeVille classic, a murky fruit cocktail of barrel-aged and unfiltered gins and blackberry wine.
Until the patio opens, the roomy, in-the-round bar stocked with mostly domestic wines and beer may be the most comfortable place to park at the Warbler. The front dining room is close and crowded, and EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING, while the small rear dining room behind the kitchen is only slightly less constricted.
The Warbler attempts to sing its song for every kind of eater. It’s a rare restaurant that does that very well, and while there are still some sour notes that need tuning, Carter and Breo have a far better chance of catching on beyond the borders of Lincoln Square than many of their neighbors. v