Sky Full of Bacon

Aces and Eights

Tell me this doesn’t ring a bell: you’re driving in the middle of central Texas and you spot a beatup old roadhouse. You go inside and there’s a tough-looking crowd at the bar. They eye you as you take a seat, but the blonde waitress is friendly and cheerful, so you figure it will be all right. You order a beer off their list of handcrafted regional microbrews, and start looking at the menu— and there’s lamb spiedini and short rib agnolotti and all kinds of authentic Italian food. Knocking back the first sip of your dry-hopped Belgian-style ale, you think, yup, I picked a good ‘un this time.

What? You’ve never run across the authentically Italian shitkicker bars of central Texas?  The ones with great beer lists?  Well, yeah, you wouldn’t, because no such thing exists, at least outside of Three Aces on Taylor Street.  Only this particular moment could have produced it— the head-on collision on a country road late at night between trendy Mediterranean-influenced dining and the desire to escape white tablecloth dining strictures and kick back. Big Star plopped Bakersfield beer and taco joint into Wicker Park, but ultimately, with its minimalist gray walls and Bill Evans on vinyl, it’s about as lowdown as the faculty lounge at Chico. Three Aces has rough wooden walls and a dark look and the feel of a place where you could authentically get your ass kicked, but then in the back, there’s a chef— Matt Troost, who tantalized us with a brief tenure at Fianco (see my interview with him here)— turning out small plates of exquisitely handmade Italian food to wash down with your Three Floyds or Bell’s.

And the food is very good. Duck fat chips were delicate and compulsive to eat, with just a hint of animal-ness to remind you they were no ordinary chip. A grilled salad of romaine lightly inflected with anchovy and ricotta couldn’t have been cleaner and simpler tasting, but gorgeous. Short rib agnolotti, though they were cooked a little too al dente for my taste, were comfily satisfying, with just a hint of provocation from a vaguely Latin spice. Lamb spiedini— two skewers of ground lamb with an onion confit and housemade stout mustard— were bursting with wild, rangy lamb flavor, although the mustard itself was more bitter than enjoyable (my dining companion had just had a similar thing at Three Floyds which she liked much better).

I was less wild about duck fat confit with jonnycakes in a bourbon syrup; the jonnycakes were overcooked on one side and the whole dish was too sweet. Though the crust on a very thin pizza was nicely bubbly and charred, I thought the porchetta shaved onto it didn’t deliver the porky punch I expected and was somewhat unappealing in rubbery curls of gray meat. Still, the “pizzette” menu seemed extremely well put together and full of novel combinations.

And you might need the pizza, especially if there’s more than one or two of you, because it’s a short menu of small plates and we were scratching around in it by the end looking for a few more things that really appealed to us. Penny Pollack recently asked in an interview, “How many gastro-pubs can you have and how different can one be from another? How much craft beer can you drink? How many BBQ places? How many burger places? How many small-plate places can you have?” I don’t know, how many froufy continental places could we have in 1994, or ’84 or ’54?  How many “Northern Italian” restaurants dishing up caprese salad and angel hair pasta?  Yes, it seems a little cookie-cutter when the latest ampersand place with a pork-heavy menu opens, but fundamentally it’s a great thing that handcrafted cuisine of such quality is so accessible that you can stop in for a beer (an expensive one, admittedly) at a place that looks as neighborhood tavern-y as Three Aces and still have food of the quality that they’re serving here.

At the same time, this is an ambitious menu for a bar but less so for a restaurant, and considering the promise Troost showed at Fianco— which I don’t want to overromanticize; it was more promising than fully accomplished— the short, snack-leaning menu at a faux-Texas bar doesn’t seem as if it’s stretching his abilities to the utmost, or would reward repeated visits just to see what’s happening in the kitchen. At the moment a lot of chefs like Troost are finding success and happiness combining artisanal cuisine with the higher drink margins of the bar business. Being at a profitable Three Aces beats the hell out of watching Fianco close for whatever reasons of not making its numbers, I’m sure. And I didn’t mind the casual atmosphere, and not having to change out of my jeans, a bit (my tolerance for dressing up goes way down when there’s two feet of snow out). But I wonder, a couple of years out from this trend, if chefs like these will be itching to do more for an audience more focused on food than drinking. As likable as these places are, at some point, I think, dining’s going to want to get in its pickup and take a drive back into town.

Three Aces
1321 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 243-1577

If you like this post and would like to receive updates from this blog, please subscribe our feed. Subscribe via RSS

Comments are closed.