My first week in Chicago, in February 1995, I was driving around exploring the city when I turned my girlfriend's juddery little red Hyundai down Fulton Market between two delivery trucks backed up against opposite-facing loading docks. I was slowly squeezing my way through when around the corner whipped a forklift piloted by a wild-eyed berserker with Lemmy-length hair and a bloodied white work coat who stopped on only the briefest beat before hitting the gas, well aware that I was already putting the car in reverse and getting the fuck out of his way.
Fast forward to 2017: "Man babies."
That's what my tablemate—who works in the neighborhood in customer service—lovingly called the buttoned-up tech bros who pay her tips. We'd been sitting next to a group of characters fitting the description at City Mouse, the restaurant in the Ace Hotel around the corner from Fulton on Morgan Street, across from Google HQ. She was describing the very precise and fussy way this type of fellow wants his drinks prepared.
These days the man babies far outnumber the forklift drivers in the Fulton Market District, and that's why now you have an Ace Hotel instead of a cheese factory, which was what filled the building's footprint 22 years ago.
City Mouse serves as the anchor for the hotel, and given the principal chefs involved, it was being thought of as a restaurant with extraordinary promise long before it opened its doors. Here you have the team behind the relatively tiny Giant—Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader—along with chef de cuisine Patrick Sheerin, late of Trenchermen, opening what could almost be described as a satellite operation, serving the same sort of explosively flavored vegetable compositions; luscious, head-slappingly good pastas; and wacky sweet playthings that they made their name on in Logan Square. It's not for nothing that Giant, on any given night, is home to some of the most hard-to-get tables in town.
For now, tables at City Mouse are pretty easy to come by, partly because the dining room is so expansive. Counterintuitively, it's also dark and claustrophobic because its glass window walls, which evoke some of Chicago's best-known Miesian architecture, are hung with long white curtains that act like shrouds over the room.
On the breezy summer nights I visited, the wide availability in the dining room probably also had something to do with the crowd's preferring the lengthy outdoor patio surrounding a massive fire pit large enough to accommodate human sacrifice.
The menu kicks off with an echo of Giant's acclaimed uni shooter, this one a single-bite take on Garrett Popcorn's signature mix called the Country Mouse. An aged cheddar cheese ball topped with spicy corn puree, a caramel tuile, and black caviar, it's a virtual necessity at the start of any meal here. What follows is a gradual succession of increasingly larger and heavier dishes—vegetables, pasta, and a few meatier things—culminating in a burger and a filet mignon that are probably the least interesting things on the page.
Vincent describes the creation of the kaleidoscopically flavored arrangements of fruit and vegetables that this group is known for as a struggle to achieve balance between acidity and alkalinity. "And then, honestly, we just put a bunch of shit on top of it that's complementary," he says. As at Giant, those dishes are the most startling things on City Mouse's menu. A salad of white peaches, pecorino, and nutty farro is so simultaneously sweet and savory it'll flood your brain with endorphins and wings will burst from your back. Chunks of lightly cooked zucchini tossed with chewy, dense cylindrical rice dumplings and sweet Fresno chiles are an absorbing contrast in textures. A thicket of Chinese broccoli, imbued with an intensely concentrated charred tomato sauce, is grilled and dressed with aioli and a 20-spice curry oil atop an understory of creamy hummus. In a dramatic cultural mashup, tahini-cooked eggplant sits alongside large sweet dates and cucumber-tomato salad on a large rectangular flatbread you're meant to tear apart and use to eat this seemingly incongruous but ultimately delicious composition, served with a dish of sheep's milk feta.
When things take a turn toward the meaty, vegetables still have a prime role to play. Hunks of artichoke, battered in Italian bread crumbs and deep-fried, are smothered in meaty pork sugo with drizzles of Taleggio sauce. Skewers of sweet scallop abide with cool cucumbers and crunchy rice-paper crackers.
You can submit to a kind of delirium when confronted with the pastas. Fat, springy rigatoni dance in a light and acidic Bolognese sauce. Soft layers of lasagna shelter minced-mushroom duxelles over a sauce of roasted onions. Tensile spaghetti noodles tangle among feta, Calabrian chiles, and fat chunks of bacon under a snowcap of bread crumbs, the poor man's Parmesan.
By contrast, straight entrees seem more subdued. Apart from the burger and the steak, a smoked chicken breast drizzled with aioli sits aside a pile of cashew rice, while a salty snapper fillet shares the plate with zucchini, bacon, and sour cream.
Pastry chef Angela Diaz, another Trenchermen vet, turns the lights back on in the fun house with a handful of riffs on lowbrow classics: a dense sesame-chocolate ice cream sandwich with white chocolate ganache and sesame seed nougat is served with a hot cup of sesame-honey chocolate for dipping. Coils of crispy apple funnel cake are tossed in sweet cheddar powder, roped with corn-caramel sauce, corn nuts, and candied apple-cheddar corn, and topped with sweet-corn ice cream, hijacking the meaning of the word "corny." A "strawberry milkshake cake" features lush, dairy-soaked tres leches cake finished with strawberry frosting and rolled in white-chocolate-strawberry crunch, honey-vinegar-pickled strawberries, and a straw of dehydrated meringue.
The wine list is tight and affordable, with only three bottles breaching $100. Caitlin Laman, late of Mezcaleria las Flores, weighs in with a list of intriguing cocktails. Among them are the Gap Tooth Fizz, a frothy egg-white-capped gin-and-mezcal refresher, and the Middle West, with Old Tom Gin and herbaceous vermouth offering cover for Malort's bitter kiss.
Twenty-two years ago, when I was a man baby tentatively creeping around the neighborhood, it was unthinkable that a hipster hotel could exist among the whole hog carcasses and dudes who worked with their hands. And yet here we are. Similarly, the food of Vincent, Lustbader, and their cohort of chefs would have been a wondrous dream. Of all the changes this neighborhood has gone through, this is surely one for the better. v