It was recently decided for me that, in order to address the increasingly turgid swamp of flesh that surrounds my bones, I would spend a two-week period abstaining from whiskey, ice cream, pasta, and most anything else that makes eating and drinking enjoyable. I've done this before. By the time you hit 14 days it doesn't feel like such a big deal. But man, when you're struggling through the first week you feel like you're ten years younger—and living on a desert island. When I began this fast I'd just finished scolding a restaurant for deboning chicken thighs before frying them, and there I was every day, poaching boneless, skinless breasts in the pooled tears of my own regret.
Those days are over, I'm relieved to report, but in the midst of them I found some relief at the Chop Shop, the multipurpose butcher shop/restaurant/bar/performance space in the shadow of the Wicker Park Blue Line stop. The ownership has some old-school-butcher cred—one of the partners is a scion of the family behind Niles's great Minelli Meat & Deli, which has been around since the late 50s. But the Chop Shop bears little resemblance to that, nor does it have much in common with the new breed of butcher that includes the scrupulously resourceful Butcher & Larder and the dazzlingly varied Publican Quality Meats.
In terms of its retail offerings, the Chop Shop is relatively conventional, featuring deli meats and cheeses, antipasti, a refrigerator case of sausages, and lovely but not terribly unusual hunks of meat. And its dining room, located on the second floor, has an appealingly minimal menu, showcasing just four meaty cuts from the butcher shop—a New York strip, a rib eye, a hanger steak, and a pork chop—plus Italian sausage and peppers, roast chicken, seared salmon, a burger, and ricotta gnocchi.
It's a streamlined steak house under the authority of chef Joshua Marelli, former number two at the ill-fated Urban Union. Marelli implements simple and effective dishes: the naked, 16-ounce, dry-aged, bone-in rib eye with bordelaise sauce; the ten-ounce New York strip with a pool of bearnaise sitting politely to the side, surrounding a modest smear of potato puree; the buttery, bloody, sliced hanger steak garnished with fresh green peppercorns, alongside shoestring fries. In comparison, the thick pork chop, almost jellylike in its tenderness and covered in parsnip chips and pear slices, looks positively lurid. If the steaks seem spare, a handful of sides—from a crock of buttery spaghetti squash to tiny brussels sprouts and kohlrabi batons larded with bacon to garlicky, bitter rapini—can help round things out.
It's a model that can make you feel disciplined, even virtuous, as you contemplate firm, fennel-y sausage mingling with a few red peppers or a half chicken with root vegetables, its roasted breast almost as silky as its sous vide thigh.
At the Chop Shop you'll find the prices significantly cheaper than at most downtown steak houses, beginning with the five-piece jumbo shrimp cocktail, garnished with a few celery leaves, and the simple wilted kale salad, almost fluffy in texture and topped with a jiggling soft-boiled egg. And the cocktail program—there are also plenty of beers on draft—lends itself to snacking; for that there's a charcuterie board of fatty duck rillettes, pancetta-wrapped pork paté, chicken liver mousse, and thin, diaphanous sheets of luscious guanciale.
The Chop Shop's multidisciplinary approach keeps the space active all day (hot and cold sandwiches are available during retail hours). With all that, it might not be the first place that comes to mind when you're looking for a special night out. But it's a worthy stop when you just want a piece of meat, flawlessly prepared—or a raw one to take home—without resorting to bankruptcy or starvation.