September 20, 2012
Trotting out familiar flavors in unexpected guises is almost de rigueur among serious young chefs these days, but few can match the wit and imagination on display at Trenchermen, a not-quite-3-month-old restaurant in Wicker Park.
Savory seasonings applied to sweet dishes, seafood used as pasta, matzo subbing for tortilla chips — you never know just what you'll get from brothers Michael and Patrick Sheerin. Dining at the Trenchermen is a steampunk-driven thrill ride, where the historical and the modern collide — often with an ironic nudge — in delightful, satisfying ways.
Begin with the space, once home to Spring restaurant. Some of the former design elements remain, including a black marble ceiling gracing the antiques-strewn foyer, and glazed white tile dating back to the building's bathhouse origins. But it's into the time machine for the rest of the look, which includes wood-filled pot-bellied stoves, black-iron pipes converted into down-facing lamps, clusters of Edison bulbs seemingly connected to marine rope, and cage-covered light fixtures at ceiling height. I felt like I was dining on the Nautilus.
The Victorian-era dining room, however, is in the service of a thoroughly modern kitchen, its concepts stretching beyond even Jules Verne's imagination. There is sepia, the cuttlefish sliced into brilliant-white strips so delicate and yielding you'd swear you'd just been handed a Japanese noodle dish. Coddled in an avocado-chive puree, with garlic chips and compressed watermelon cubes for texture, this dish will have you slurping every morsel.
Chicago's Greektown supplied the inspiration for the scallops dish, though the Sheerins turn the influence inside out. The supporting avgolemono sauce is thickened by oysters, and the bottarga sprinkled on top consists of dehydrated cured egg. Thus there is seafood, but no eggs, in the egg-lemon sauce, and eggs, but no seafood, in the fish-roe accent.
If that sort of culinary deck-shuffling makes you smile, Trenchermen is your restaurant. If instead your eyes roll skyward, well, console yourself that the dish tastes terrific, the oyster sauce echoing the shellfish main ingredient, the reimagined bottarga adding just a gentle salinity.
Among the more inspired creations are pan-roasted duck breast (aged for a week in-house) with umeboshi (pickled Japanese plums) and arancini, the rice balls stuffed with mortadella (made in-house from duck legs) and kimchi; and cold-smoked sturgeon (an upscale nod to deli sturgeon) with ground cherries. I loved the bresaola-style chicken slices, piled high over cubes of pickle tots (the brothers' terrific take on tater tots) and a beet-tinged, ranch-dressing-meets-borscht yogurt sauce. And the smoked sweetbreads, served with lime-infused carrot slivers and a house-made XO sauce, has become my favorite sweetbread dish in town.
I'll be sad when the changing season spells the end of the heirloom tomato salad, a colorful melange with pickled peppers and crunchy apricot chips, topped with white-balsamic ice cream (certainly a novel way to dress tomatoes with balsamic), but I'll console myself that the sensational slow-cooked salmon (sometimes ruby trout), crusted with black olives and sesame, should have a lengthy menu life.
Playful desserts include variations on churros (the brothers grew up near a Mexican neighborhood), dusted with cumin (subbing for cinnamon) and married to peaches and dulce de leche ice cream in one version, presented as corn-rich doughnuts alongside a sensational tomato-molasses jam in another. (The only other place I've ever seen tomatoes in a dessert is L'Arpege in Paris, and that joint has three Michelin stars.) There are Klug blueberries scattered about a beer-infused panna cotta with pound cake croutons and dots of lemon jam, and a coffee cake that is, in fact, coffee-flavored cake with fried chocolate, chai ice cream and a fluffy smoked-caramel topping.
Servers, clad in collarless shirts (men) and muted-blue working smocks (women), support the dining room's turn-of-the-century look, but there's nothing old-fashioned about their food knowledge (crucial for a menu with so many playful winks — what is a trencherito, anyway?) and nothing lacking in their attentiveness.
The beverage program includes a well-chosen and largely affordable wine list (there are enough high-end options to please the serious drinkers), a short but sweet draft beer list that includes Three Floyds Gumballhead (which informs that panna cotta dessert) and some memorable cocktails, including a Vesper made with Malort, a bitter liquor that originated in Chicago. Credit beverage director Tona Palomino for some fine sipping options.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
Trenchermen2039 W. North Ave., 773-661-1540, trenchermen.com
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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