Pilsen might seem like an odd place to open a beverage-focused, gastro-pubby restaurant, but chef Jared Wentworth recalls hearing the same sentiment when he opened Longman & Eagle in Logan Square.
"Back then it was Lula Cafe, Longman and that was about it," he says. "Four years later there are 30 restaurants (in Logan Square). It's crazy. And as the rents rise, the hipsters have to go somewhere, and Pilsen is blowing up; it's going to be Logan South pretty quickly."
Credit partner Bruce Finkleman, who also owns the Empty Bottle, for seeing the potential in Logan Square and for snapping up the landmark building Thalia Hall last year to create Dusek's, named for the man who built Thalia Hall in the 1890s.
Thalia Hall was modeled after the Prague Opera House and was a focal point for the neighborhood's then-Bohemian population. Dusek's is visually respectful of the building's historic roots (a pubby, dark-wood environment with a vintage tin ceiling), but you won't find Czech food here. What you will find is beer; there are 24 carefully selected drafts (including one Czech dark lager) available, and even the cocktails have a beer base. And beer flavors drive Dusek's medium-plate menu, assembled by Wentworth and chef de cuisine Hillary Sundberg.
Tsingtao beer, for instance, inspired the General Tso's sweetbreads, an artful dish that combines earthy sweetbreads with roasted shishito peppers, pickled daikon and an almost syrupy sauce of ginger and chili. Beer's affinity for fried food led to the Kentucky fried quail, whose crispy, buttermilk-batter quail pieces share the plate with pickled okra, red beans and foie gras cornbread, a Southern gentleman of a dish.
There's Mediterranean flair in the brandade fritters, affixed to the plate with half-dollar dollops of romesco sauce and topped with tidy piles of lemon relish; for a four-bite appetizer, there's a lot of nimble flavor balancing taking place. Hand-cut venison tartare gets a Middle Eastern accent, topped with charmoula (an herby Tunisian spice paste, made in-house) along with a quail egg and finished with pickled ramps (for brightness), saffron aioli (soothing richness) and toasted forbidden rice (crunch).
Good luck hanging a label on that menu. Suffice it to say that the food is approachable, a little rustic and a lot of fun.
Some dishes are simple to the point of irony, such as the blue crab and artichoke-relish dip, a suburban potluck creation that Wentworth calls "my white-trash grandpa's basement dish" (it impresses nonetheless). Others would be at home in a gourmet magazine, such as bon bons of foie gras and chicken-liver mousse, encased in sauternes aspic and matched to huckleberry-flavored marshmallows.
Though the menu is dominated by smaller plates, there are a few entrees worth seeking out. Chief among them is the maple-braised pork shank, crisped just before it's served and plated with root vegetable hash and addictive cheddar hush puppies. I'm also fond of the tea-smoked duck breast with foie gras bread pudding and duck consomme. The coffee-rubbed short rib, with smoked mushrooms and salt-roasted carrots, sauced with a cocoa-nib bordelaise sauce, is comfort on a plate, as is the much lighter roasted sturgeon, striped with creme fraiche and lobster bordelaise sauces.
"The Ordinary" is the kitchen's daily special, a single entree paired with a glass of beer. One night the match was beer and sausage, prosaic-sounding enough, but Sundberg gave the dish a Caribbean slant, creating a goat sausage matched to sweet banana jam and savory breadfruit custard, brightened with a pickled scotch-bonnet vinaigrette (not as spicy as it sounds).
The menu offers a nice array of vegetable (not necessarily vegetarian) options. Neither the broccolini nor the cauliflower gratin will win any beauty pageants, but the bright notes of the former and creamy richness of the latter make them good side dish options. The sunchoke risotto, studded with charred beets and pickled mushrooms, is sturdy enough for main course status.
The desserts are by Jeremy Brutzkus, who also serves as Longman & Eagle's pastry chef. His chili churros, served with chili-dusted bittersweet chocolate sorbet, are sort of a nod to the neighborhood, as is a cazuela of gingered sweet potato custard with a pecan crumble topping and cider sorbet. The killer concoction is called Black & Tan (beer-inspired, of course), a root beer float for grown-ups pairing stout, chocolate soda and malt ice cream, served alongside tiny chocolate shortbread cookies.
The corner of Allport and 18th streets is on its way to becoming the hippest intersection in the city. In addition to Dusek's and its subterranean sibling, Punch House (which has a limited number of Dusek's dishes but principally is a lounge featuring punches by the glass, carafe or bowl), Thalia Hall is about to debut a performance venue (the first concert will be May 21) and community space. Look for an indoors farmers market in June.Dusek's
1227 W. 18th St.; 312-526-3851; dusekschicago.com
Tribune rating: 2 stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday; brunch Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Medium to large plates $12-$26
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Accepted for parties of 5-12 only
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.