In the public rumpus that preceded the opening of the Dawson, one image remains embedded in the collective memory of the city's twitchy restaurant stalkers: a slab of nearly raw high-grade beef jacketed in a thick, batter-fried shell.
Rene Deleon's chicken-fried prime rib eye looked like an image from a carnivore's night terror.
A crime against nature. How could he do that to a cow? It was an odd blip in a run-up that looked very promising in terms of the roster behind the operation.
Billy Lawless, the principal behind the Gage and Henri, tapped Alinea and Next vet Deleon as executive chef. Lawless also brought along Clint Rogers, Henri's estimable barman, as general manager. Deleon enlisted his sous chef from Next, Patrick Russ, while Rogers assembled a host of other bar talents, and all installed themselves in a massive building that was once part of the fireplace mantel manufacturing empire from which it took its name.
The money that went into this project is hard to fathom, judging not just from the two-story, 400-seat refurbishment with upper and lower outdoor patios, but also from each and every little detail, like the animal-embossed vintage cocktail glassware and the disposable bar napkins and taco wrappers printed with the image of the Dawson's mascot, a bident-wielding satyr.
In contrast, when you consider Deleon's opening menu—onion rings, curry, grilled chicken, pasta, tacos, posole, a burger, the ubiquitous cheese and charcuterie plates—the Dawson appeared to have the sort of unfocused, kowtowing approach common to a more indiscriminate restaurant, the type of place where it doesn't matter what people are eating as long they're drinking a lot. In fact, the stated mission of the Dawson is that of a booze-focused restaurant (what many of us like to call a "bar"), with each staff member supposedly empowered to recommend three specific beverages for each dish, not just wine or beer but also the cocktails created by former Charleston and Big Star barwoman Annemarie Sagoi.
The term "elevated bar food" has become a discouraging phrase over the years, but if anyone could pull it off wouldn't it be the guy who came from Next? But then, less than a month after opening, Deleon was gone, an exit as unexpected and mysterious as a North Korean political execution. Sous chef Russ stepped up, and only recently began revamping the menu—so recently that many of the things I ate on my visits have been 86'd as of this week.
Such a rapid departure of a high-profile opening chef can't be a good sign, and yet one month after Deleon's departure the kitchen served a devastatingly good cioppino, its light, tomatoey, not terribly acidic broth bathing some beautifully fresh seafood. Crunchy tacos, billed as al pastor, were terrifically rich, almost like pulled pork, and cradled tightly in crispy corn shells; they made a nice accompaniment to an ancho chile posole scattered with crispy tortilla strips. A formidable mountain of tagliatelle made from semolina and chestnut flour and mined with confit mushrooms and dabs of pureed squash was a nice departure, a texturally interesting noodle with a nutty flavor, but it nonetheless failed to trump some slippery ribbons of pappardelle served to the side of a gargantuan, fall-off-the bone braised pork shank that three different servers recommended. Yet it's no longer on the menu—nor are any of the other dishes I just described.
I don't know if the charred leeks are going either, but I hope not; sprinkled with serrano ham and Parmesan shavings, and crowned with a jiggly soft-boiled egg, they're loaded with an acidity that takes you by surprise. I hope the fat, dense, house-made merguez sausages stick around too, their saltiness balanced by cool, tangy, spicy harissa yogurt. The charcuterie board at the moment is one of the most interesting in the city, featuring a chunky, bacon-wrapped country paté; a slab of loosely packed, nutmeg-scented cotechino (for good luck in the New Year); and a silky rabbit-liver mousse topped with gelee made from Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge, a sour Belgian red ale tapped at the bar that makes the perfect pairing.
Russ has recently added a pair of crispy crab cakes with mustard sauce, and he's changed up Deleon's country-fried rib-eye. Now it's a New York strip, and there's little mystery as to how it's made: the beef is cooked sous vide, battered, and then quickly deep-fried, allowing no time for the interior to overcook (unless you want it that way). But you miss out on one of the greatest pleasures of eating steak: instead of the charred crust formed from a direct sear, you get a rapidly disintegrating battered crust that becomes wet with juice, breaks apart, and sloughs off as soon as it's touched.
Perhaps it's best to focus on the bar. Sagoi, who personally hunted down the lovely glassware, built her collection of a dozen mostly easy-drinking cocktails with a fairly light touch of alcohol by volume, all the better to go down easy with food. This is not to say that these are uncomplicated drinks. Most tend to clock in at half a dozen ingredients, and they range from the Verdita Mixta—a refresher of mezcal and tequila, spiced with jalapeño and cooled with cucumber—to the Traveling Mercies, a heavier stirred potion of rye, rum, sweet vermouth, and Luxardo maraschino. In addition, many of the more nontraditonal alcohol delivery systems are well worth checking out. Sagoi, who made a name for herself at the Charleston with a series of crafty Jell-O shots and has revived the practice here as off-menu items, also offers something called "the daily dram," an ever-changing shot of Old Forester bourbon and other spirits that drip down though a twisting glass contraption that infuses the liquor with botanicals such as ancho, mint, and chile. But there's no better way to end a night at the Dawson than with a Sleepless in Logan Square: Bow Truss coffee spiked with bourbon, Amaro Averna, and Madeira, scented with orange zest, and topped with gooey Fernet Branca marshmallows.
Beyond these, and taking up two thirds of the menu, there's a carefully collected spirits list, more than two dozen mostly old world reds and whites, and 15 craft beers on tap along with Miller High Life. The Dawson, in all of its sprawling magnificence, is first a bar. But at least initially it succeeded in matching the booze offerings with some pretty good food. I don't know where Russ is going to take the menu, but for now I'm going to recommend the Dawson based solely on the drinking.