HQ Howard Quintero at 4114 N. Kedzie
A cozy, classy place with exposed-brick walls and wood floors and tables and a shiny zinc bar, HQ Howard Quintero appears at first glance to check the boxes for elevated comfort food, a trend that doesn't yet appear to have worn out its welcome. The menu, however, is fairly straightforward, with entries like buffalo wings, loaded fries, airline chicken, and meat loaf. They're gussied up just a touch—roasted red pepper and walnuts in the mac 'n' cheese, kale chips to go with the beer-braised short ribs and horseradish-garlic mashed potatoes, onion-date jam on the pot roast sandwich—but nothing to scare off an unadventurous diner.
Alongside these comfort-food classics, though, are dishes that suggest that the kitchen is capable of more than grilling hunks of meat: fire-roasted seasonal vegetables; a winter kale salad with grilled fennel, roasted butternut squash, and goat cheese croutons; an eggplant tagine. The best thing I ate was house-cured salmon served on a house-made sesame-poppy semolina cracker with arugula, green tomato conserve, fried capers, smoked creme fraiche, dill, and pickled red onions. It's a thoughtful, carefully calibrated dish that I'd expect to find at a much fancier restaurant, the buttery salmon balanced by the bitter arugula, salty capers, sweet conserve, smoky crema, and crispy cracker.
Three-cheese puffs showed a similarly light touch. I half expected the Parmesan, cheddar, and feta cheeses listed on the menu to arrive simply breaded and fried, but while deep-fried, the puffs were, true to their name, light and airy. In the case of the Moroccan tagine, though, I wished the chef had shown a little less restraint. The eggplant, chickpeas, and couscous were all nicely cooked but underseasoned; a little lemon juice would've helped, and more almond slices could've added some textural contrast (salting the dish did perk it up some).
And it was a little odd that the "seasonal vegetable" accompanying the bacon-wrapped meat loaf was grilled summer squash—but that said, both the meat loaf and the garlic mashed potatoes were satisfying, and the fried strands of leek that accompanied them were incredible. While the restaurant was BYOB when it opened a year ago, it's since gotten its liquor license and now offers a few cocktails ($7-$9), along with a reasonable (and reasonably priced) selection of beer, wine, and booze.