Sky Full of Bacon


Catch and Release Browntrout

There was a time when you could just open a new neighborhood restaurant and let the broader world discover you, slowly.  That time is not now; now a place like Browntrout is hyped in between the week’s other debuts (Nightwood! Cibo Matto! Rootstock!) in media the whole world can read.  Even a fish has to sink or swim, it appears; there are no more little neighborhood finds.

Even so, I’d like to create a little protected habitat where Browntrout has a chance to get bigger before it’s devoured.  There’s some real promise here, in a year this could be the Mado of fish, and yet my meal also went seriously off rails at a certain point.  What was good was good enough that I’d like to see it mature a little, find its footing (which is obviously even harder if you’re a fish), and become what’s in its chef’s head.

Browntrout (BYO at this point) aims to only offer sustainable, high quality and organic ingredients; it divides the menu into sharable small plates and bigger entrees which, once you get into sustainable, high end fish, are not cheap. I stuck mainly to the small plates in order to have more to try.

What was good— very good— is the plate shown above, a trio of small servings of fish meant to be nibbled as nosh.  At the top was a housecured, orange-scented golden trout, which was served lox-style with bagel chips and as delicate and rich as very good lox.  The middle was a smoked trout salad, and the bottom a piece of yellow perch, fried with a sort of remoulade/tartar sauce accompaniment.  The first two of these were really wonderful, showcasing the delicacy of good fish beautifully; the perch was more ordinary, and the remoulade or whatever it was could have used more bite, more body, more oomph.  Still, for $13 this was a substantial (and substantially terrific) plate which Avec or The Bristol would be proud to serve up.

We ordered this as an appetizer, and were grilled fairly extensively about the precise order of the other dishes we wanted; our waiter seemed very concerned that the order and timing be precisely calibrated, somewhat beyond the easygoing vibe of the restaurant (which, that night, had several of Bin 36-vet chef Sean Sanders’ relatives wandering about).  The reason for the jarring appearance of a control freak note to our experience only gradually revealed itself as we waited… and waited… and waited.  The night grew dark, my opportunity for picture taking vanished, we found ourselves making faces we recognized from the “before” parts of a Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, we were apologized to enough times that we were ready to say “Stop apologizing and just go kick somebody’s ass in the kitchen!”

They handled it very nicely, we wound up with both a salad comped and some free cookies, can’t complain, but still, given the simplicity of the items involved, it was hard to imagine how the kitchen— not at all overstressed on Sunday night— could have possibly taken so long to produce these items.  I’d be nervous about Browntrout for pre-theater dining (we’ll be late for Cornservatory!) or even for the lunch which has gotten some attention lately.

Nor did the items we have entirely justify the wait on a flavor basis.  Best, by far, was a burger made from Tallgrass beef.  I’ve only had one Tallgrass steak, at the Harry Caray’s by O’Hare, which was bad enough that I wanted Bill Kurtis to narrate it like a crime scene (“But when he cut into the steak… what he found was not the juicy, flavorful steak he’d hoped for… but a gnarled and gray nightmare that had only just begun”).  This was, let me estimate, one frazillion times better, maybe oversalted a tad but a richly flavorful burger that was like meaty meatiness all wrapped in meat.  I was just tvetching (kvetching on Twitter) about the popularity of the very good, but at that price it should be, Rosebud Steakhouse burger; here’s one in the same ballpark pricewise which to me beat it for depth of flavor.

Less exciting was a pea salad, “peas three ways,” which mainly revealed that the actual peas are the only parts of a pea that have much flavor; eating the shoots and leaves was kind of like munching ivy off the side of your house, and the salty dressing did little to bring it all to life, being desperately in need of a sweet note, or any note that would have made the leaves and branches palatable.  While the final dish, a special of an escargot “tart” in a veal demiglace, was executed perfectly well for something assembled out of foodservice ingredients (puff pastry tart shell, demiglace in a jar), but seemed a dining-in-1955 dish that was way out of step with the rest of the restaurant and the approach promised by the fish trio at the beginning; it might have strolled over from Lutz’s a few blocks away.

Still, the things that were good, especially that fish plate, were very good indeed.  If Browntrout can build on that kind of treatment of excellent fish, get more confident and coherent in what it’s offering, and not least, get that kitchen working at “After Gordon” speed, it could become a really impressive restaurant, truly a fish Mado (or whatever it is they actually hope to become).  For that to happen, maybe it needs to be ignored for a bit by the whole planet, and just serve its neighbors for the time being as it finds its footing.  So if you’re a neighbor, check it out, enjoy it, get to know its obviously committed husband and wife owners; but if you’re the kind who hops from hotspot to hotspot, delivering quick and permanent judgements, maybe you should let Browntrout go for a little while, and see what it’s grown into a season or two from now.

Browntrout
4111 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60618-3027
(773) 472-4111

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3 Responses to “Catch and Release Browntrout”

  1. anonymous Says:

    I appreciate your perspective. On the one hand people dwell on the economy but on the other hand, if you follow twitter and food blogs it seems like, “what recession?” People are opening restaurants here and there and people are quick to review them and let the whole world know about them and give their perspective on them. I wonder–are we opening more restaurants now than ever? And are we putting them under the microscope sooner than ever? If so, perhaps the playing field is becoming more competitive? Either way, there are a large number of places that I can think of that do good business and have a loyal following–but I think they’ve worked hard for it and have earned that following over time–I think that’s what you are hoping for here. If only restaurants could sign up for time-released publicity. Interesting and exciting times.

  2. Michael Gebert Says:

    Carl, the fish salesman in the new video, was pretty down about the industry in the spring, seeing definite signs of slowness in his orders, but feels a lot more optimistic about it now. Places will close but I have yet to see a really terrific place that I thought had no obvious strikes against it succumb.

    As far as publicity goes, it’s a bit unfair if new places can’t reach their stride without a glare of publicity, but on the other hand it does seem like you can recover– Piccolo Sogno was slammed fairly hard when it first opened but the general feeling seems a lot better now, to name one example– and more than that, it’s the competition that makes our scene so strong. The same restaurant and people in a smaller city wouldn’t be pushed as hard to excel; they might do so anyway, but you definitely gain something from being part of a scene.

  3. E L Says:

    Good points about the scrutiny that newly opened restaurants are subject to from the moment they start cooking. I’m not sure I disagree, but I wonder if there’s less to this than one might think. Sometimes it feels like kind of a plugged-in-Chicago-diner internet echo chamber.