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The Northman is cider central for Chicago

At the city's first cider pub, the food is no match for the juice.

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Ravenswood's Fountainhead is one of the best craft beer and whiskey bars in the city, with dizzyingly long lists that are a pleasure to lose oneself in. When it was announced more than two years ago that its principals were to take over the former Jury's in nearby North Center and open a cider-focused bar, hopes were widely pinned on the group taking the same careful and comprehensive approach to apple fermentation. Despite many establishments offering a cider here and there, a fledgling but limited yearly Cider Summit at Navy Pier, and a few underwhelmingly stocked shelves at various Binny's, no one in town had yet seriously tried to bring the beautiful universe of cider into clarity. If anyone could do it, this group could.

On the other hand Fountainhead never really delivered a food menu that could match its beverage program. Even when the talented chef Cleetus Friedman took over in 2013, there was always something disillusioning about what came from the kitchen. But shortly before the Northman opened in March, Friedman left the group and it was announced that Sean Sanders, the former chef-owner of the late, great Browntrout, would be taking over both kitchens. This was also promising news. But more about that later.

The restaurant's beverage program is headed by Brian Rutzen, aka "Cider Brian," a crusader for fermented apple juice who seems to have it running in his veins. His menu, broken down regionally, provides copious and entertaining tasting notes on some 18 draft ciders and 80 by the glass or bottle. Additionally, there are apple-based cocktails and what's claimed to be the largest selection of Calvados in the country as well as a smaller group of other apple brandies and a few choices of French pommeau, the marriage of apple juice and Calvados. If by some flaw in your genetics nothing here piques your interest, there are plenty of other nonpomaceous spirits, beers, and wines.

But it's difficult to see why anyone wouldn't want to dive into this multivaried world of cider, if only to marvel at the differences between, say, the light semidry florality of the Canadian Sea Cider Prohibition and the murky unfiltered barnyard funk of Michigan's Uncle John's Farmhouse Firkin. Or to guzzle (appropriately) a glass of typically flat Trabanco Sidra streamed into the glass from on high so that it aerates into a frothy, living fluid. Or feel the chills shooting down your legs from a honeyed ice cider—winter's work on the apple as rich and full-bodied as a Sauternes. There's so much to explore.

It should be easy to find good food to eat with this diverse group of juices, even as a significant portion of the menu incorporates them, from the cow's milk and sidra-blended cheese to the pommeau-spiked chicken liver paté to the maple-glazed cider doughnuts.

Among larger and smaller selections there's a thin Normandy-style French onion soup, traditionally thickened with roux, that's spiked with a sharply sweet dose of English Thatchers cider that does well with the oozing Gruyere crust. The fries—served alongside a mystifyingly underseasoned burger or on their own with black-garlic aioli and curry ketchup—are as on point as thick, baton-cut English chips, crisp with a cumulous interior. But perhaps the best use of these wonderful chips is under a few chunks of malt-cured Icelandic cod, cider-battered, hard-fried, and sprayed with malt vinegar mist; it's one of the best versions I've come across in some time. A snail-and-bacon ragu rides tandem with a crispy "leek swede strudel" in "beef demi," which is an earnestly cheffy way of describing something like a rutabaga egg roll in beef stock reduction; it's an odd dish for this menu, but still satisfying. Another curveball, hand-cut pasta—fettuccine-like for nominally chitarra noodles—tossed with Mexican-style pickled onions and carrots, chunky bits of roasted goat, and blobs of creamy crescenza cheese—doesn't quite come together physically but might be one of the most flavorful things on the menu. Same goes for the fabada—a Spanish butter-bean stew reminiscent of Publican Quality Meats' fantastic cocido—with chorizo, blood sausage, and bacon, undermined only by the relative lack of stewing liquid to enjoy with the accompanying grilled sourdough. This dish had great potential, but it's since been 86'd.

Things go downhill from there, however. The Northman has joined the ranks of Chicago restaurants offering something called porchetta that no Italian would recognize as such: shaved slices of fatty roasted pork with no crackling, no flavor, and little character, served with an aged half-pretzel baguette that might be more at home at a Panera. A Cornish pasty more resembling a reheated Greek cheese pie consists of greasy puff pastry jacketing a sodden clump of cheese with a gluey sunchoke puree on top. Addressing chefs' current tendency to attempt street-food makeovers, a doner arrives on a useless slate service piece, the tissue-thin lavash with barely enough structural integrity to contain desiccated shreds of beef, chicken, and lamb and wan out-of-season tomato salad.

A confit chicken curry very well might be a piece of political performance art, a statement on the lasting evils of colonialism and cultural appropriation. Served with pickled cauliflower and shiitake mushrooms, it comes with a spice profile that barely registers anything more complicated than faint chile heat, like something served to residents of the psych ward so as not to excite the choleric humors.

Sanders is way better than this. I'm hoping his too-brief turnaround time after assuming the job is responsible for these failings, and that he'll make a recovery. Since my early visits he's already added two hyperseasonal dishes more akin to his work at Browntrout—a chilled soup of ramps and spring peas, and a trio of ramp-Gruyere pancakes not unlike the Korean analogue pajeon. These dishes show promise, but for the moment the Northman is an outstanding place to drink, with food that doesn't stand up to the cider. v

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