Flavors of remorse at Rogers Park's new MorseL

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Jalapeno bacon wedge
There was really no place to eat in the town I'm from, not even respectable fast food—I grew up distraught that Hardee's, which seemed to me like a sort of McDonald's lite, was the most cosmopolitan option available. The best actual restaurant was and remains a supper club, the Three Mile, which is justly famous for its broiled whitefish. You can get things like shrimp baskets and burgers there. What moved me most, as a child, was the salad bar, an embarrassment of riches: on a base of iceberg lettuce, if your parents weren't really watching, you could freeload on ranch dressing, croutons, shredded cheese, and bacon bits. My mom only ever served us vinaigrette; a visit to the Three Mile salad bar was something spectacular.

I was reminded, unpleasantly, of that salad bar on a recent visit to MorseL, a new restaurant in Rogers Park that marks a solidified monopoly: its owner, Colm Treacy, also has the neighboring Glenwood, and the nearby Sidecar, and it's not hard to see a future in which fully two blocks of Glenwood Avenue are taken up by drink and dining establishments that aim squarely at the middle of the brow. Take, for instance, this "jalapeño bacon wedge," from the appetizer menu: a lettuce wedge layered with whole strips of bacon (which had a nice spicy kick), bathed in goopy, industrial blue cheese dressing, garnished with hard-boiled eggs and cherry tomatoes. It offered all the cholesterol possibilities of your standard midwestern salad bar, but none of the accidental cohesion that so pleases you when you're, say, nine years old and, left to your own devices, you pile a bunch of junk food on a plate. Actual adults made this. The dressing was terrible. The lettuce tasted like water. My companion likened the salad to a BLT, and I took her point, though I thought it was an overgenerous appraisal; it's hard to conceive of a bad BLT.

(I'm jumping the gun. First we were given an amuse bouche, except here they call it a . . . "morsel," which has never sounded to me like a thing you'd want to put in your mouth. It was a crostini dressed with a grocery-store-deli-esque blue cheese, cranberry, and chive amalgamation.)

Another appetizer, "smokies," wasn't as bad. It was a hot little crock of smoked, shredded chicken with cherry tomatoes, green onions, and cream—spicy, salty, I could've lived with it, particularly after another drink or two, but the little crostini served alongside ran out awfully fast.

It was better than what followed. The entree menu is a sort of pastiche of . . . well, you know, entrees, most overvalued in the $15-$20 range. There is some orecchiette, there are some beef short ribs, there are mussels, a warm duck salad, some mac 'n' cheese. Monday nights MorseL serves fried chicken and mashed potatoes, and I would've ordered it, but our server informed us that the kitchen hadn't thawed enough chicken for the occasion.

Instead I chose cod, which is only the same as ordering the blandest thing on the menu if the kitchen gives it to you absolutely unadulterated, which was the situation here. In its defense, the cod at least was cooked. It was encrusted in pale panko, on a bed of bad french fries ("sea salted steak fries," per the menu) and "minty peas," which tasted like, I don't know, peas. It was the most flavorless thing I've eaten in a while—like a stereotype of English food only realized in restaurants paying absolutely no attention to what they're doing. My companion ordered the lamb chop, which itself wasn't too bad—pink on the inside, which suggests some sort of culinary facility happening somewhere. The potatoes with it were "lemon roasted"—I probably would describe them more as "vinegar poached"—the green beans were crisp, and the "panko bread stuffing" amounted to a weird little buttery pile of panko, just sort of sitting there on the plate, beguiling diners with its uselessness.

Dessert was offered but not opted for. Full bar within. Credit cards accepted.

1406 W. Morse, 773-274-0700, morselrestaurant.com

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