I've rarely been as proud as I was the day I stumbled on the combination of crunchy peanut butter and Filipino banana ketchup on toast. On paper, I don't expect everyone to immediately understand the synergistic genius of this pairing, but I'll wager few would fail to stop short and ponder it if it were listed on a menu somewhere.
Similarly, I imagine there's an abundance of halting, head-scratching menu reading going on at Trenchermen, the long-awaited union of fraternal chefs Pat and Mike Sheerin, lately of the Signature Room, and Blackbird and Three Floyds Brewpub, respectively. In partnership with impresarios Kevin Heisner and Matt Eisler (Bar DeVille, Nightwood, Bangers & Lace, Anthem), they've reimagined the subterranean bathhouse that was for many years home to Spring into a darkly gorgeous space, woody but still retaining its white glazed tiles. The vaguely steampunk air presents a discombobulating contrast to the precise, elegantly arranged plates the brothers are putting forth.
But it's the intriguing conceptual contrasts on their menu that resonate most. You'll see things like aged duck breast with kimchi and mortadella fried rice, pork belly and plums with bubble gum, and panna cotta made with bitter pale wheat ale.
These tersely described, oddly fascinating juxtapositions are like magnets for the novelty-obsessed diner desperate to have her eyes opened wide by something new. Conceptually the brothers have created dishes that practically sell themselves. Should they not, the servers are prepared to endure vigorous interrogation from diners.
Take the sepia noodles. This appetizer is not some old-timey-colored pasta but thick, snappy, fettuccine-like ribbons of cuttlefish, tangled in a deep bowl lined with an avocado puree that contributes a creamy fattiness—one that's broken up by puffed garlic chips and chunks of pickled, compressed watermelon. The use of the Latin name for the cephalopod lends the dish a sense of mystery—one that gives way to joy upon discovering the terrific textural variety in this little bowl.
Surprises like that predominate: Sheets of thinly shaved, cured chicken breast are draped among deep-fried cylinders of compressed, shredded pickle and fat dabs of fuchsia-colored beet yogurt. As this pile of pickle dots dwindles, you become increasingly aware that the dish overcomes its potential for gimmickry. These are unrecognizable from any deep-fried pickle you've had—and intentionally or not, the dish nods to the historic Polish demographics of the neighborhood. Other plates reflect a subtle Asian preoccupation. Crispy, bacon-cured sweetbreads festooned with shaved noodles of lime-seasoned carrot are arranged on swipes of smoky XO sauce, a flavor enhancer that originated in Hong Kong and is commonly made from dried seafood. Fresh kale mingles with sweet-and-sour onions and radishes, their piquancy balanced by a moist, savory carrot-quinoa cake and cool dollops of green goddess-edamame puree.
- Andrea Bauer
- Bacon-cured sweetbreads with lime-seasoned carrot
With dishes like these the brothers employ ethnic influences without hand-holding diners who might be expecting something more familiar. Bisected scallops are bathed in a Greek-style egg and lemon bath, topped with grated hard egg yolk and chanterelles. Glistening, pink sea trout fillets are coated in a thin but substantial black olive tapenade sweetened with sesame, surrounded by dabs of sour sumac puree and a bright green hummus made from fresh chickpeas—familiar Middle Eastern components arranged in an original, unorthodox format.
Other dishes have no apparent referent to any particular cuisine but are composed of disparate and unexpected elements. The kimchi and mortadella fried rice with the aged single plank of duck breast appears on the plate as mini arancini. You might not recognize the parts, so subtle is their impact. To the Sheerins' credit the bubble gum with the pork belly isn't printed on the menu in quotes; as it turns out, the bubble gum is a thick smear of sauce made from banana, vanilla, and mint—more mild curry than Bazooka Joe. But you can taste what they're going for.
The brothers present their biggest challenges to conventional assumptions at dessert, where savory and sometimes bitter flavors are incorporated into the sweet with surgical precision: shreds of moist coffee cake with chai-tofu ice cream and lightly smoked meringue, or peach and tomato salsa with tomato molasses accompanying the hottest, freshest doughnuts I've ever encountered in an upscale restaurant.
Curiosities abound in the glass and bottle too, with wines as interesting as a cloudy unfiltered chenin blanc that drinks more like a French saison ale, and short-poured cocktails from beverage director Tona Palomino (who worked with Mike Sheerin at New York's modernist temple wd-50) including a celery-infused gin and tonic and the Desperate Vesper: a gin, Lillet, and wormwood potion whose lingering bitterness never overstays its welcome. It's one of the best and most balanced Malort cocktails since Brad Bolt's Hard Sell. These cocktails go down fast, if only for the unconventional choice of drinking vessel—they're like juice glasses. And they're not inexpensive at $12 apiece.
That's something you can say about the food as well—the dishes are pricey and not ample. Perhaps as a result of the name the brothers chose for the restaurant—meaning "a person who has a hearty appetite; a heavy eater," per Webster—you might have it in your head that this would be heavy, hearty food. But don't forget about Pat's particular emphasis on local sourcing at the Signature Room, or Mike's modernist approach honed during his time at wd-50. Both come from fine dining backgrounds—apart from the terrific bar food Mike crafted at Three Floyds—and the meticulously plated, artful, and unorthodox compositions they're constructing now rank Trenchermen among the new class of restaurants, including Acadia, Next, El Ideas, and Goosefoot, that are responsible for the salvation and reinvention of fine dining in Chicago.
Disclosure: On my second visit to the restaurant my cover was blown. Mike Sheerin sent out a dish (one I'd eaten previously, the trout) and visited my table to say hello. The dish was as delicious the first time as the second—and our server profited from his boss's generosity with a tip augmented by the price of the dish.