A Saturday evening spent tooling around and looking for a place to get a decent steak at the last minute is usually destined to end with a stop at the nearest Whole Foods and a session over a hot cast-iron pan. Unless, of course, you're downtown.
The fact that there's an embarrassment of expense-account steak houses in the center of the city but relatively few places to get a worthwhile slab of red out in the neighborhoods is made more egregious by how impossible it is to get a prime-time table at the few that do exist, like Tango Sur or its sibling Folklore, or even an old dinosaur like Sabatino's.
Now there's a bit of relief at Portage Park's Community Tavern, a restaurant with a name so banal it sounds like a place Winston Smith goes to drink Victory Gin. Just a half mile away from Sabatino's, it's a steak house hidden behind a storefront from former Acqualina and Tizi Melloul partner Quay Tao.
Here Tao has executed a trick similar to the one he performed nearby at the Portage, a restaurant that introduced wild boar potstickers, Thai-spiced ragu tagliatelle, and pork secretos into what had once been a fairly staid culinary environment. Tao brought along his chef, Joey Beato, though the Asian accents present on the Portage's menu were left behind. On the surface, Community Tavern has a fairly straightforward American steak-house menu: shellfish trays, foie gras and roasted bone marrow, oysters and beef tartare, wedge salads and creamed spinach, and a half-dozen chops and steaks. But a handful of these dishes are executed in unorthodox, even puzzling ways.
Case in point: a smoked-trout Caesar salad made of finely chopped endive, with roasted grapes as a garnish. It's crunchy, creamy, and tasty, but so far from being an actual Caesar that it practically amounts to false advertising. The wedge salad is a bit of a surprise, too, arriving as a whole head of lettuce, in defiance of the dictionary definition of a wedge. Splitting it open reveals a hidden core of romaine, bacon, tomato, buttermilk dressing, and cheddar cheese. Steak-house classics like creamed spinach are given oddly contrarian treatments—in this case, the spinach is barely cooked and swims in a liquid akin to a cream soup. Beef tartare with smoked creme fraiche is so laden with chopped capers it could be beef-flavored tapenade. A serving of tagliatelle tossed with beef-cheek stroganoff is a richly sauced dish with a hit of baking spice so potent it tastes like a Maurice Lenell cookie. A crab and avocado salad bears so much horseradish that it tastes like a California roll with too much wasabi. I'm not going to say that these dishes weren't delicious, but their surprises are unsettling.
With other menu items Beato has taken a more conventional approach, with varying degrees of success. The house charcuterie plate is terrific, with its glistening ribbons of cured duck breast, coppa, chorizo, and smooth, rich duck liver. A short rib and oxtail terrine is a neat square of beefiness that rivals some of the entree portions in size.
The kitchen's Thursday-night special is cassoulet, which is loaded with duck confit, sausage, pork belly, and firm flageolet beans but has a cloying sweetness that's out of place in what should be a powerfully savory dish. That sweetness appears again in a side dish of mushrooms and a bone-in short rib glazed with an inky balsamic reduction.
I guess the true measure of a steak house is whether you can do a better job on a slab of meat in your own cast-iron pan. I will say that the delicate way a whole roasted loup de mer is cooked, so its sweet, flaky flesh is preserved from the ravages of fire, gives me hope that Community Tavern has potential as a northwest-side steak option. There's a good range of prices and sizes for diners who don't have an expense account, from a $23 skirt steak with frites to a $61 24-ounce rib eye. The steaks I tried were consistently cooked to a beautiful rosy pink with thin, cleanly delineated black char lines and little gray flesh, and most were dressed with restraint. The same goes for a monstrous Berkshire tomahawk pork chop, which trumps any of the steaks in its imperiousness.
The pastry at Community Tavern needs work. Nearly every flour-based item that came out of the kitchen, from a baseball-size cheddar biscuit to a deconstructed carrot cake to a brown-sugar pound cake, lacked moisture. The bar has a short list of red and white wines, affordable by both the glass and the bottle, and a deeper list of pricier domestics by the bottle (apart from champagnes). The drink menu also includes a number of large-format beers and ciders and 11 cocktails that are separated for some reason into two different lists: one for the bar and one for the dining room—where the bar is situated.
Community Tavern can probably succeed in Portage Park, though its eccentricities might not fly in a more restaurant-rich neighborhood. But Quay Tao has taken a relatively formulaic concept and planted it where it can stand out and serve the inhabitants of a steak desert. v