"I'm not building restaurants to make everybody happy," restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff (Maude's Liquor Bar, Au Cheval, Bavette's Bar & Boeuf, Gilt Bar) told Zagat last fall. "I think that's a direct path to mediocrity."
Well, his recent foray into the "deli" business didn't make everyone happy. Dillman's baffled diners when it opened its doors in River North. People were expecting cases full of cold cuts, and instead found foie gras and chandeliers. Sodikoff scrapped (or scraped, literally, from the windows) the deli label and rebranded Dillman's as a "deli-inspired American brasserie," which presumably worked—at least until the restaurant closed earlier this month. The latest is that Sodikoff is moving Dillman's a door down and changing the name—again—to Dillman's Pastrami Shop. In the former dining room, he's opening an Italian steak bar called Cocello, which is opening "soon" according to Dillman's Twitter account.
If Dillman's was an attempt to avoid mediocrity at the risk of alienating some people, it succeeded. It also was a worthy effort. Our review last September offered high praise for Dillman's over-the-top decadence (a dish of chopped chicken livers with greasy toast came with a ramekin of congealed fat for good measure). Perhaps Sodikoff didn't set out to please everyone with his newest restaurant, Green Street Smoked Meats, either—but an inexpensive, cafeteria-style barbecue joint sure seems like a safer bet.
"They don't have TVs—I don't know what people are clapping about," I overheard a woman at the bar say while I was waiting on a drink. She was referring to the fact that, despite it being mid-March Madness, no one was watching basketball because TVs would be a grave anachronism in the cavernous, ancient warehouse Green Street occupies. It's obvious someone's gone to great lengths to preserve—nurture, really—the space's built-in grit. The paint on the walls and pillars, which we can assume is recent enough to not be hazardous to anyone's health, has chipped away to almost nothing, but it all looks very just-so. Hundreds of Edison bulbs are strung across the high ceiling. Bottled and canned beers are stored in antique porcelain sinks filled with ice. Long picnic tables are arranged in rows for communal dining. The old-timey charm is carefully cultivated, but it doesn't feel insipid. The atmosphere is warm. And sometimes there's clapping. Hey, smoked meat's easy to get excited about.
First-timers are given a gruff orientation by one of several bearded male employees (maybe it's my imagination, but facial hair seemed as ubiquitous as brisket here). Basically: get your own water and food. And clean up after yourself. The menu doesn't require any explanation. A large board suspended above the smoker is split between meats and sides, 13 of the former, seven of the latter; all the meats are served by the half pound. The smoked salmon and the half-dozen grilled oysters are the two high-dollar items, at $20 and $18 respectively, but most everything else is in the range of $6 to $11. Sides—mac 'n' cheese is conspiculously absent, which seems like a shame—are $4 each.
There may be a line, but there's essentially no waiting (at least not yet). The meats are smoked and ready to go; they're simply portioned and weighed by a nice guy with a large knife, who then passes your tray on to the spoon-wielding people who serve the preprepared sides.
As for the meat, Sodikoff is shooting for Texas-style barbecue, and the company that makes Green Street's smoker is based in Mesquite, Texas, which instills a certain amount of faith. Everything comes unsauced, but with a healthy coating of rub. In the eternal battle between beef versus pork ribs, Green Street's pork ribs come out on top. (In fact, the meat-cutting guy recommended them over the beef.) The rub sticks to your fingers like a savory decal, and they're heavy with meat and pink with smoke beneath the bark. The beef ribs are comparatively skimpy meatwise; a too thick, almost black bark impinges on what meat can be gnawed away from the bone. The meat on a large smoked chicken leg, on the other hand, melts away from the bone. It's not, like, Medieval Times-large, but it's healthy. The brisket is lusciously fatty. The best thing I can say about the sauces—there are four from which to choose—is that the meat doesn't require sauce. (If you insist, the vinegar-based sauce is the best.)
The menu falters when it strays from straight-up smoked animal parts. A Frito pie with brisket chili will make you wonder why you're wasting precious stomach space on Fritos. And the hot link, though thick with a cayenne heat that comes through your nose, is ground so finely all the precious globs of sausage fat have been pulverized beyond recognition, sapping the links of unctuous moisture.
The selection of sides is straight from a family picnic. In lieu of a grandma or aunt's love, each side item includes a special ingredient that's easier to appreciate. In the coleslaw, it's an herby, bright pop of cilantro. The macaroni salad has a distinct (and extremely pleasant) citrus tang. The broccoli salad is probably the best, if you can believe it, sweet and savory in equal measure, studded with sunflower seeds and packed with dill.
Green Street is summertime incarnate, from the smells to the cocktails—standouts are a sweet tea with bourbon that's not overly saccharine for a change, and the Chartreuse Mule, a take on a Moscow Mule with gin—to the rows of outdoor seating, which seems almost cruel when we're shivering in our damp parkas in April. But even in the unseasonable cold it's an escape. And it definitely isn't mediocre.