Sky Full of Bacon

Big Southern Star

“It’s a Southern Big Star,” was my first thought upon entering the revamped, de-glitzified Chaise Lounge, now renamed The Southern.  I shot footage of chef Cary Taylor there last summer, then went to eat there in December, and while we were there I could see the way its multiple identities were running smack into each other: the glitzy, Miami-nightclub-inspired look attracted a young, hard-drinking but not terribly sophisticated crowd who weren’t going for the upscale food (other than the Dietzler beef hamburger), while the Pimp My Ride vibe was scaring off the Wicker Park diners who should have been championing Cary’s food (a point confirmed by owner Jim Lasky, who said, ruefully, that one of the things he’s heard the most since redoing the place was “Now I can actually come in here!”)

So they ripped out the glitz downstairs and made it into a rough-edged bar-restaurant with some tall tables, and revamped the menu to favor smaller plates to nosh on while drinking.  It seems paradoxical but somehow becoming more of a bar actually makes it easier to see The Southern as a restaurant, maybe because you don’t have to choose between dinner or drinking, but can just nibble as you go.  And as at Big Star or Avec or The Bristol, go in for a drink and you’ll soon find yourself tempted to just get a few plates, and then a few more.

A couple of things on the menu when we went in December are still on it— the duck orleans, aka cassoulet, and the mahi fish tacos, for instance— but the left side of the menu has been reconfigured for carb-driven bar snacks, starting with the authentically ubiquitous Southern nosh cheese straws, and the equally ubiquitous Chicago restaurant trendy pigout food of the moment, poutine.  We started with delicate hush puppies accompanied by a comfy smoked trout dip (smoked trout from Susie-Q Fisheries, seen in Sky Full of Bacon #12):

This was very good, and okay, despite my repeated Twitter attacks on that gloppy mess poutine, I have to admit that the version here was pretty hard to resist while it was hot (though our dining companions said they gave the edge to the version at The Gage).  I still don’t think poutine is quite grownup food, but I guess someone who loves biscuits and gravy really has no standing to attack it.

But there was one dish that was really beyond reproach, that we all just instantly fell in love with, and when Lasky boasted that he thought it was the best dish in the city at the moment, well, you’d give the notion some serious consideration.  It’s called johnny cakes on the menu (though the jonnycakes were eggier and more crepe-like than the classic form; Cary said the change was made to make them easier to get out of the kitchen at their peak of freshness, I presume since it means they can be fried much more quickly).  Anyway, it starts with some wonderful pulled pork, lightly but definitely smoky, and then you put it on the johnny-crepe and add a little sweet-sour note from Cary’s housemade chow chow:

I’ve noticed some recent comments from local chefs about how the pork thing has been done to death on the Chicago restaurant scene, but pork ain’t over as long as dishes this good keep popping up.

Cary sent us a few dishes to give us a picture of other sides of the menu.  I liked his fried green tomatoes quite a bit; he salt-cures the tomatoes for an hour or two before frying them with a cornmeal batter, and they were served with thin slices of goat cheese and and a sprinkling of a lemon-caper-parsley garnish; a handsomely elegant twist on an iconic dish.  Shrimp and grits we were just fair on; the grits (from an artisanal supplier that was not Anson Mills) had a great texture but the dish seemed overwhelmed by red and bell pepper; I prefer gooey creamy grits with a splash of heat, this seemed almost the reverse.  The roast oysters were an interesting version, not that I’m much of an oyster afficionado, but he did a nice job of giving them some heat and a saltine crumble topping while keeping the integrity of the briny oyster itself.

Oh, and we had the hamburger, too.  Which is pretty great, I have to admit; that Dietzler beef is sheer concentrated beefpower.  Finally we got to a couple of entrees— the much praised duck orleans, or black-eyed-pea cassoulet, and a special of striped bass with bits of salty Virginia ham and deep-fried and steamed okra around it.  All of that was good, but their show might have been stolen by the collard greens, which also had the salty country ham in its vigorous pot likker.

Collard greens, in Wicker Park. I just want to point that out— somehow we don’t blink when an upscale taco bar or an upscale Greek place opens in Wicker Park, but a Southern place— I think that may strike some people as the most exotic thing to happen on Wicker Park’s culinary scene since Baccala was serving lamb tongue.  But I love Cary’s approach— highly authentic in some cases, respectfully upscaling classic dishes without pushing them till they break in others— and I loved an awful lot of this food.  I don’t know if it will be an easy sell or not, but to my mind The Southern is easily the most accomplished upscale Southern restaurant this town has had, and if you’d line up at Big Star for a taco shell with some pork on it, you need to discover what The Southern can do with roughly the same idea just a few blocks away.

The Southern
1840 W. North Ave.

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