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Endgrain: The good, the bad, and the biscuit

On an uneven menu, there's one thing that really stands out.

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If his famous doughnuts are the reason you're following Enoch Simpson to his new Roscoe Village restaurant, Endgrain, you're doing it wrong. The correct thing is to follow him for his biscuits, about which no adjective, no intensifier, no fucking superlative could possibly suffice. Does it mean anything, any longer, to commend a biscuit as "light"? Fucking "fluffy"? Meh. This has to be tasted to be believed.

I mean, the doughnuts are great, too. But man, those biscuits.

Simpson, a veteran of Girl & the Goat who also peddled his 'nuts at Nightwood, has wisely littered this menu with biscuits. At dinner they accompany entrees and are offered as sides; at brunch, where there's a wonderful marble rye variation, they provide the scaffolding for a few sandwiches. Simpson has a knack for dough that extends beyond baked goods to, for instance, pumpernickel pasta—wide, toothsome ribbons fixed up with a simple tomato sauce and artichoke hearts, zucchini, and chevre. It was an easy, elegant dish—a real winner.

But that spirit of restraint, across the board, isn't always so winning. Things can get a little boring. In another starter, Thai nam sod salad, Simpson cleverly substitutes farro for ground pork. The dish is warm and comfortable, but the sweetness of the grain and the faintest hint of lime are about as far as it goes, flavorwise. Wan little bits of chard and eggplant don't mean much. Likewise, various forms of greens promised by the menu are rarely more substantial than a few leafy piles—generous if they were garnish, perhaps, but not a particularly thoughtful component of any dish's makeup. That problem's especially acute in a starter billed as "crispy perch," which was soggy as hell, for one, and bland, for two—and the "cherries, snap peas, fennel" atop it weren't nearly substantial or even fresh-tasting enough to liven things up. House-made kimchi is a total stinker, too, but in the sense that it's not stinky. It's not spicy or funky, either; it's just really, really salty.

So is a smoked-fish sandwich at brunch, nominally dressed with slaw and tomato remoulade as well as Gruyere. I was able to visually confirm the slaw was there, but there was no kick to it, no freshness, and no bite—and nothing to offset the powerful saltiness of the proteins and the biscuit. (That biscuit, though. Boy oh boy.)

On the other hand, a wonderful mushroom and rapini tart with Parmesan—the filling mostly enclosed in a buttery, flaky dough, like a pot pie—is an unapologetic blast of umami. Ditto a brunch special of baked egg with stewed squash blossons, tomato, and zucchini: a rich, complex melange of seasonal vegetables on a menu that does not have a lot of veggies qua veggies. Both these dishes suggest the kitchen's reticence with spice is intentional; given the ingredients, though, it works only occasionally.

Endgrain also wins, more or less, with a fried chicken dinner. A couple pieces of meat, seemingly cut off the breast, didn't pack much punch, even with decent breading; there was something inane and fast-food-like about them. It was hard to believe the magnificent rest of the chicken—a succulent leg and thigh—had come from the same recipe. Sausage gravy was by the book, though a smoked potato puree had a sulfurous, burned flavor. It bears mentioning, too, that not automatically presenting hot sauce with your fried chicken dinner or your biscuits and gravy breakfast (there's a perfectly fine one here) is patently unacceptable. There oughta be a law.

I seem not to be doing a very good job complimenting the fried chicken dinner. I guess what it comes down to is: it's served with a biscuit. If you come for brunch, it's served on a biscuit.

In addition to its sit-down service, Endgrain offers coffee for takeout—rich, chocolatey La Colombe—and pastries, including doughnuts. Simpson gained fans at Nightwood for his butterscotch-bacon, but feel free to stray; a recent end-of-season strawberry and vanilla doughnut was a minor miracle, tasting intensely fruity, even fresh. There's no booze here yet, but there are a couple nonalcoholic drinks, fruit based and otherwise. An egg cream was just fine: could've been colder and, at $5, definitely could've been cheaper.

This corner space, formerly home to the late, lamented Terragusto, is airy and lovely, if a bit textbook-New-American. It could share an interior decorator with, say, Billy Sunday. In both aesthetics and ethos, really, Endgrain is pretty similar to a lot of north-side restaurants. The biscuits are a hell of a start, but it'll need to do more to distinguish itself.

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