If there's one cuisine we could use some more of in Chicago, it's Southern food. Who wants to venture into a red state just to sink his or her teeth into buttermilk biscuits and cornbread, or enjoy some authentic shrimp and grits and chicken fried only the way a Southerner can fry it?
I crave the cozy comfort of good 'ole fashioned Southern grub and I'm always interested when talented chefs put new spins on classic dishes. So I was tickled pink when I heard about Carriage House, a new Wicker Park restaurant that promises both "lowcountry" specialties and some modern-day culinary flair.
Carriage House certainly has all of the ingredients to become a Chicago hot spota chef from South Carolina who honed his craft at Hot Chocolate in Bucktown, a celebrated mixologist who spent some time at Graham Elliot and a handsome space on a bustling Division Street corner. This is the kind of place you want to love. That's why I'm disappointed to say there was no love at first bite for me at Carriage House. A few tastes and sips did delight, but too many other things just fell flat. Sigh.
The space is truly lovely, and that is just one reason I hope this talented team can pull it together and serve the kinds of meals that keep Chicagoans coming back (and keeps them in business). The interior has a Southern vibe, but you don't feel like you've stepped into a period piece. Stately brown leather banquettes and modern dark concrete floors are offset by light wooden tables and darling teal Bentwood chairs that looked like they were plucked directly from the kitchen of a quaint Southern home. Tables are set with white and red-striped kitchen towels instead of napkinsa cute and subtle nod to lowcountry dining.
One of the first things I tasted the Lionel Hutz cocktail, which is made with single-barrel bourbon, sweet tea, Creole lemonade and agave, and garnished with a slice of peach. The sweet tea and agave take the bite out of the bourbon, making the refreshing concoction that goes down easy. It reminded me of the kind of beverage you'd be served on a front porch by a sweet Southern granny (the fun kind who keeps single-barrel bourbon around the house). The Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail with citrus flavors, was also good, but not quite as memorable as the Lionel Hutz. Less impressive was the Angry Orchard Mule, one of the selections from the punch section of the menu. I love that a mixologist is making old-school punches, but the one I tried just missed the mark. It was made with vodka, pear, cider vinegar and sparkling apple cider. Sadly, the vinegar overpowered the other flavors making it unpleasant at best and undrinkable at worst.
Carriage House's menu is made up of 12 small plateshalf of them labeled "traditional" and the other half marked "reimagined"and four meat and fish suppers. My waiter recommended two people share three to four small plates and one supper. With small plates averaging about $12 and all of the larger entrÃ©es hovering around $30, your tab can add up mighty quickly, especially if you're indulging in the $11 cocktails.
In true Southern fashion, I started my meal with some fried green tomatoes from the traditional side of the menu. I wish they tasted more like the traditional fried green tomatoes I've eaten south of the Mason-Dixon line. Unfortunately, these were undercooked in an unremarkable batter and served lukewarm. The hot-sauce vinaigrette was a nice touch, but couldn't compensate for the lackluster tomatoes.
The Charleston she-crab soup drew me back in a bit. The warm and hearty soup had a thick stick-to-your-ribs consistency and was full of crab. The tangy and sweet sherry reduction drizzled on top provided a nice contrast to the creamy soup.
I also sampled a fried chicken thigh from the traditional side of the menu. Like the fried green tomatoes before it, the chicken was a far cry from the traditional kind you'll find in cafÃ©s, diners and joints all over the South. The chicken itself was juicy and flavorful, but was fried in a batter that left a lot to be desired, and we all know the breading the supposed to be the best part of fried chicken. Maybe the folks at Carriage House should import a Southern granny to give them a quick refresher course.
My small-plate experience did, however, end on a high note with the lowcountry oyster roast. The tender oysters were served in their piping hot shells and dolled up with cheek bacon, tomato jam and buttermilk aioli, and topped with crispy strips of fried leeks. That was the only dish I sampled from the reimagined section of the menu and it was by far the best, so if I were to return to Carriage House, I'd lay off the traditional picks and try more of Chef Mark Steuer's culinary experiments.
My meal carried on in that up-and-down fashion. After the scrumptious oysters came the steak. I'd been eying the buttermilk-marinated ribeye since the moment I laid eyes on the menu. The menu promised smoked salt, blue cheese, marinated heirloom tomatoes, grilled chicory, cornbread croutons and hot pepper vinegar. Frankly, they had me at "buttermilk-marinated ribeye" and all of those other delicious-sounding things just added to my anticipation. Maybe I got a bad cut or perhaps they skipped over the buttermilk-marinating process, but this was the toughest, chewiest steak I've ever had the displeasure of shelling out $34 for (and I ordered it medium-rare, so it's not my fault!). The blue cheese was plopped on the plate in big cold hunks that, for blue cheese, were astonishingly flavorless. The cornbread croutons may as well have come out of a box because they were that average. I don't even recall the other flavors because I was too fixated on the fact that I couldn't cut my tough steak. The only thing redeemable about this piece of beef was the joy I got thinking how much my dog, who is slightly less discerning about his dinner than me, would enjoy my uneaten steak when I got home that night.
I ordered a side of cornbread to accompany my steak, and that is where Carriage House truly lost me. If you bill yourself as a lowcountry restaurant, you've got to knock the cornbread out of the park. The best things I can say about the cornbread is that it was served in an adorable mini-cast iron pan and was brought to my table hot. In what should have been dazzling, it was topped with a sweet onion jam and served with foie gras butter. The dollop of onion jam overwhelmed the cornbread and I had no interest in the foie gras butter. In fact, I hope the culinary obsession with pureed duck liver fades soon because I'm just so over seeing foie gras in every conceivable form turning up on restaurant tables everywhere. But back to the cornbreadwhat I would recommend to the folks in the kitchen at Carriage House is to ditch the fancy-schmancy toppings and focus instead on finding a tried-and-true cornbread recipe and serving it with plain old butter.
After the ribeye and cornbread fiascos, I was ready to call it a night. But, purely in the name of research, I ordered the beignets for dessert so I could report back to you. I'm pleased to say they were divine, and I lived in New Orleans for several years, making me basically a certified beignet expert. Carriage House's beignets transported me right back to my days down South. They were piping-hot, impossibly soft and fluffy on the inside and sprinkled with plenty of powdered sugar. They would have been just fine on their own, but they were made even better by the chocolate and cafÃ© au lait cream sauce that accompanied thema lovely update to a classic dessert.
Clearly, there were some big hits and some big misses at Carriage House. If you're looking for a sure bet, this is not the place for youjust yet. I think the team behind this restaurant has the chops to churn out delectable Southern cooking that delights the taste buds of Chicagoans, but I think they're going to need some time to hit their stride. Check back in a month or so when this talented team will hopefully have worked out some of its kinks and perfected a few recipes.
Carriage House is located at 1700 W. Division Street; call 773-384-9700 or visit www.carriagehousechicago.com .
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