I love it when a restaurant exceeds my expectations, don’t you?
Wicker Park’s Carriage House did just that. There’s something about visiting Wicker Park that makes me feel so much hipper than I really am. So, despite my husband’s lack of facial hair and my too-nice shoes, we ventured forth, fueled by a rumor that the drinks and the food at this establishment were more than just fashionable.
The feeling from the moment you walk in is down home and comfortable. It’s all light and air, with big windows, super-high ceilings and farm tables—no stuffiness, no pretense. Hipsters, and they are plentiful here, check their attitude at the door. Everyone just looks so damn happy.
Happy Craft Cocktails
And you will be, too, if you start with one of their craft cocktails (all $11), like the refreshing No Ticket (Broker’s Gin, lime cordial, muddled cucumber and tonic); the slightly bitter Summer of ’91 (Cocchi Americano, Buffalo Trace bourbon, lemon, angostura and soda); the spiced, sweet tea-laced Chucktown Punch (perhaps too sweet); or the deep and mysterious Creole Cocktail (Very Old Barton Bourbon, Carpano Antica, Benedictine and orange bitters).
Go for the Picnic Board
The menu is divided cleverly into “Traditional” and “Reimagined” small plates that are, of course, meant for sharing. Their justifiably famous Picnic Board ($16) is a must; laden with shaved country ham, shrimp remoulade, homemade pimento cheese and pickles, deviled eggs, fluffy chicken liver mousse, potato salad and a tiny skillet of perfect cornbread. While the eggs were surprisingly blah, everything else hit the mark and then some.
If you’re a fan of the barely poached egg, as I am, this could be your Shangri-la. Grilled Local Asparagus ($13) is topped with that farm egg, the yolk the bright orange color of sunrise, drizzled with both béarnaise sauce and a sherry and sorghum vinaigrette, and dotted with crawfish tails and cornbread crumbs.
You can’t go wrong with the Mushrooms, Truffle and Egg ($13), a cast-iron baking dish filled with cheesy white-corn grits and topped with sautéed oyster mushrooms and greens, a soft egg, shaved Thomasville Tomme cheese and just enough truffle vinaigrette to perfume but not overpower. Break up the egg, toss it all together, and inhale.
I’ve got to pimp for the Fried Green Tomatoes ($11), because vegetables need a voice. Where they found such an enormous green tomato—the slices, perfectly battered and fried, seemed huge—I couldn’t tell you. But when it’s topped with pickled shrimp, fresh spring peas and creamy tarragon vinaigrette, I could honestly say I don’t care about the provenance as long as they end up in my tummy.
I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back…
Baby Back Ribs ($14), seriously meaty and glazed with pepper jelly, were placed on a bed of “buttermilk puree” and gilded with a curtain of pickled heirloom carrot shavings, spring onions and candied peanuts. Woo-eee! That was some good eatin’.
The menu only offers four entrée-size choices, the best of which was the Redfish ($27), which came on a bed of English pea puree and hoppin’ John, with chunks of smoked mushrooms and garnished with a lively pea tendril salad. Lovely.
And if they offer the special Slagel Farms New York Strip Steak ($30) when you visit, grab it. Simply put, one of the best pieces of beef that I’ve had in ages. The steak, served medium rare and juicy as all get out, shared the plate with sweet corn puree and was topped with a fresh spring salad of asparagus, pickled peppers, shaved radishes and arugula.
Foie Gras Butter? Is That Even Legal?
Sides included Collard Greens ($5) and a bigger skillet of that yummy cornbread, this time topped with foie gras butter (no lie) and rhubarb compote. I would recommend that you order one small plate per person, and one entrée for every two people, maybe with a side. That will be plenty of food unless you are ridiculously big eaters.
Of the three desserts ($8 each) offered, we really flipped for the Pecan Praline Sundae, with Mindy Segal’s (of Wicker Park’s Hot Chocolate fame) delectably rich butter pecan ice cream, served with brown sugar shortbread, topped with bourbon caramel and showered with spiced, candied pecans.
Sweet Home Chicago
The Down South Crème Brulee, made with Carolina Gold rice pudding rather than plain custard, was a close second, but the (barely) spiced pears added nothing to the dish. Beignets were hot and doughnutty, served with a thin coffee-flavored fudge sauce and coffee froth and a cloud of confectioner’s sugar, a la New Orleans. Not a fan of the sauces, and the beignets were merely serviceable.
I don’t remember Southern food being quite so delicious—New Orleans excluded, of course (that city is a world onto itself). But Carriage House is well worth fighting traffic for, so go online and make a reservation. Right now!
4 out of 5 stars (A-)
1700 W. Division St.