Mark Steuer's new German restaurant isn't named for his teenage all-accordion Krautrock cover band—though I wouldn't be surprised if he could pull something like that off. It is, however, a long-awaited return to the main stage by a chef who's veered all over the culinary map since his first days in Chicago, handling the savory side of things at Hot Chocolate, and then moving on to the Gage. Since leaving behind the nominally "midwestern" Bedford and then the South Carolina low-country wingding at Carriage House, he hasn't been idle. He manned the parilla as John Manion's chef de cuisine at the Argentine El Che, and created an underappreciated fried mortadella sandwich (among other things) at the late Orbit Room. He was even behind the tomato soup and grilled cheese and other upgraded bar foods at Albany Park's Surge Coffee Bar & Billiards, something the short and to-the-point menu at this spiffed-up pool hall that replaced the late, great Marie's Golden Cue inexplicably fails to mention.
It's worth following Steuer wherever he wants to go, and here he's gone to Germany, sort of, opening what was originally billed as a Bavarian beer hall. That's a digestible shorthand for what's happening in a long, open dining room and bar stretching away from Chicago Avenue toward a white-tiled open kitchen. And yet, in this spiffy brasserie, it's difficult to imagine beer-drenched revelers stuffed into lederhosen like sausages and bellowing "Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit" with their frothing steins held aloft.
Steuer came up cooking in South Carolina's low country, but his ancestral home is Germany, and it's the food of Deustchland and something of the former that he's very loosely playing with here, an approach underscored by goofily titled dishes like "Sürfentürfen," "the (Weiss) Wurst," and "Oysters Hockafeller."
The last is a play on the classic that incorporates crispy crumbled ham hock and pickled Fresno chiles to produce a luscious swirl of porky, buttery, smoky, sweet-and-hot sensations that almost made me forget how often I've complained that this is no way to treat an oyster. What's clear is that Steuer is doing what he wants. That also holds true of the bread service: two hot garlic pretzel knots, each the size of a toddler's fist, accompanied by pinch bowls of a soft pimento cheese and a mayo-and-vinegar-based Alabama-style white barbecue sauce.
The latter, even when accidentally applied to a smoked half chicken smothered in summer squash, crowder peas, and tomatoes in a silky but powerfully rich and tangy Alsatian Riesling sauce, demonstrates that an uptight attitude about southern and/or German food closes one off to the possibility of embracing gemütlichkeit, or any pleasure at all.
OK, one common cliche attached to both of those cuisines prevails: it's a meaty menu, with steak tartare, nearly emulsified with truffle vinaigrette, tightly wrapped in cold cabbage and showered with grated Gouda and pickled mustard seeds that pop brightly, lightening the load (the dish has since been 86'd). Chunks of crispy grilled pork belly and jiggly, sweet seared scallops form the aforementioned surf and turf, their hot, rich swagger checked by pureed sauerkraut and sweet, glistening Klug Farms plums. And these are just midsize plates. Feasting-size trenchers include a grilled rib eye awash in a sauerbraten-styled jus, sliced and fanned around mashed potatoes with a riff on Arby's "horsey sauce," and a hot, crispy schnitzel, dabbed with sauce gribiche, that stretches across the plate under a salad of arugula and cherry tomatoes.
By the time you read this, that bright seasonal foil to the fried madness will likely have been swapped in favor of something more seasonal, as will a few of the other veg-centric dishes, which make up a third of the menu. You'll have missed out on the sweet, cool chunks of melon and tomato tossed with hot cubes of browned Brun-uusto cheese and ribbons of salty speck. Whips of bitter broccolini showered in shaved cheddar, crushed hazelnuts, golden raisins, and creamy buttermilk dressing are loaded with an underlying heat, while braised leek coins are mounted with smoked trout and roe. There will always be some form of the soft, tubular spaetzle—an ever-changing "blue plate spaetzle," according to Steuer—but in mid-September they came dressed with basil and tossed with radish, Parmesan, roasted corn, zucchini ribbons, cherry tomatoes, and candied walnuts.
There is one dish that's neither a dominant protein nor a lighter counterpoint to the carnality but has the potential to be a year-round classic Steuer will never be able to take off his menu: soft, house-made ricotta dumplings with cauliflower, meaty oyster mushrooms, crumbled kielbasa, and gooseberries in a glossy sauce made from the ricotta whey and reduced chicken stock, topped off with a charred rosemary vinaigrette. More than anything, it prompts a pursuit of athletic indulgence without the leaden heaviness normally associated with northern-European food.
Even three desserts seems injudicious after such intensity, but both the pastry-formal Black Forest cake and the bombolini-like doughnuts, filled with custard and rolled in cinnamon sugar, present challenges worth rising to.
The beer-hall aspect of Funkenhausen is realized with nine German imports in various varieties (kolsch, pilsner, gose, dopplebock, etc) and a focused but fascinating collection of the underserved wines of Austria and the French-German border in particular, put together by GM (and former Carriage House sous chef) Joseph Carnahan.
Like that historically shifting borderland, the food at Funkenhausen is somewhat rooted in the Old World, but mostly it's just Steuer, who's more than earned the right to ignore borders on both sides of the Atlantic. v