The Brixton: Third time's a charm

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The bar at the Brixton
The space that used to house In Fine Spirits has seemed slightly doomed since the neighborhood favorite closed two years ago (the lounge, that is; the liquor store next door is still going strong). It was replaced by Premise, a pricey fine-dining establishment that lasted just four months before abruptly shutting down in August 2012. Brasserie 54 by LM quickly took its place, but didn't fare much better. Last summer Tim Casey, owner of the Little Italy bar the Drum and Monkey, bought the space and in December opened a gastropub named the Brixton.

The space feels much more like In Fine Spirits than its successors—the high-top tables are back and flat-screen TVs have been added, making for a casual atmosphere. What's missing is food at the price point you'd expect in a place where you can't rest your feet on the floor. There are bar bites and sides in the $3-$6 range, and small plates for around $10. Aside from a burger, the larger plates run about $20-$25—and they're not all that large.

But while you may not be able to eat cheaply here, you can eat well. Intensely meaty, garlicky pork rillettes were served with a smooth beer mustard that we practically inhaled. House-made jerky was well spiced and not too dry; its thickness made it very chewy, but not unpleasantly so. And I was surprised how much I enjoyed a side of al dente broccoli with chiles and garlic.

We spent a while trying to find the advertised bacon in the popcorn—we could taste it but couldn't see it. We finally concluded that the smoky bacon flavor was in the fluffy Parmesan on top—the waitress later told us that chef Kevin McMullen infused the Parmesan with bacon flavor, though she didn't know how it was done. Apparently you can take the chef out of the modernist kitchen—McMullen has worked at El Ideas and, before that, under Brandon Baltzley—but you can't take the modernism out of the chef.

A sort of deconstructed potato soup was less successful. Bits of bacon, cipollini onion, and little chunks of cheddar arrived in a bowl over which the server poured potato soup that was more like a puree. Aside from being slightly undersalted it wasn't bad, but the thickness of the soup made it impossible to tell which of the add-ins you were getting, and biting into a piece of aged cheddar when I was expecting onion was startling and not particularly pleasant.

Entrees, on the other hand, were phenomenal. The phrase "meltingly tender" came to mind as soon as I bit into moist, umami-rich pork shoulder—but the gnocchi with short ribs made it seem almost tough by comparison. I usually avoid ordering gnocchi because I assume they'll be dense and gluey, but these light, fluffy, brown-butter-coated nuggets reminded me why gnocchi exists. Together with the short ribs it's an incredibly rich dish, but I'd order it again in a second.

The eight-drink cocktail menu features several classics, including the less common Aviation and Boulevardier. Heat nearly overwhelmed the High Thyme—a concoction of Bulleit bourbon and maraschino liqueur with lemon, thyme, maple syrup, chile, and cucumber—but the bits of lemon pulp in the drink, along with the maple syrup and cucumber, helped balance things out. The smoky, citrusy Spanish Harlem, consisting of mezcal, chartreuse, and lime, was simple but elegant. And I'll be back again in the summer (if not earlier) for the Mule Skinner Blues, an easy-drinking dark rum cocktail with huckleberries, mint, lime, falernum, and ginger, tasting a little like a cross between a mojito and a Moscow Mule with some berries thrown in. There's also craft beer—a respectable list of nine draft pours and 20-odd bottles—and about 20 wines by the glass.

The Brixton, 5420 N. Clark, 773-961-7358

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