With antique spirits and goat brats, Mordecai brings fine dining to Rickettsville | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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With antique spirits and goat brats, Mordecai brings fine dining to Rickettsville

Chef Matthias Merges's restaurant is the latest to open in the Hotel Zachary, across from Wrigley Field.

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A man in a black suit with an earpiece met us at the front door at Mordecai.

"I guess you didn't see the sign outside."

Sign?

"It says to enter through the hotel."

We'd missed the sign, but since he told us this with the cheerful demeanor of a prison guard—and without explaining why—we offered to exit and reenter next door through the Hotel Zachary. We wanted to do the right thing for Mordecai.

That would be Mordecai as in Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, the legendary Cubs pitcher of the dead-ball era, whose autograph is scrawled across the dining room wall—though you wouldn't necessarily be able to identify it as his. He was missing two fingers, after all.

Mordecai, which comes to us via chef Matthias Merges's Folkart Management, is just one of a passel of new restaurants to open in the new hotel in the shadow of Wrigley Field, among them Big Star, Smoke Daddy, and Boka Restaurant Group's forthcoming Dutch and Doc's. It's just a small piece of the massive redefinition of the neighborhood being wrought by the Ricketts family, owners of the Cubs.

But I guess some things will never change. On game day in Wrigleyville you still have to have a bouncer at your door.

It was a warm spring night, the Rockies were in town, and at the front of the dining room you could watch the game on the immense video screen hung above the new outdoor annex to Wrigley Field called, unforgettably, Gallagher Way. Unfortunately, it's unforgettable because insurance brokers Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. bought the naming rights and between innings the screen cuts to the company's name against a blue background bright enough to be seen from space. It's marvelous to have a meal with a commanding view of the landmark stadium, but when the sun goes down it's tortuous to sit under the jumbo death ray next to it.

There are TVs above the bar too. In kindness, they're mounted behind screens—which oddly doesn't allow much close scrutiny of the game, calling into question their very purpose.

More interesting are the rows of antique whiskeys and liqueurs behind the bar, sourced by longtime Merges collaborator Alex Bachman of rare-spirit purveyors Sole Agent, many of them costing hundreds of dollars a pour, each finger of bourbon served with a dropper bottle of Kentucky branch water. Bachman also designed the cocktail menu with unsurprising dynamism; among its highlights are a tall, pleasingly bitter cranberry gin rickey, tart, pink, and fresh as your mother; a light manhattanlike Peerless Leader lent some spice from Benedictine; and a tropical-rum-focused Royal Rescuer that swings through the subcontinent with tamarind and green-cardamom notes.

The menu is executed by Jared Wentworth, last seen at Regards to Edith, who faces the challenge of satisfying his own sophisticated fans as well as hotel guests with broad tastes and the ball-park crowd, which presumably can't be trusted to walk through the front door.

On game days Mordecai opens early for the last group, serving a limited menu with a pair of burgers, fish-and-chips, fries, cheese curds, and a soft pretzel, but also more conspicuously cheffy things like a paté du jour, an asparagus salad with orange-infused hollandaise and a sous vide egg, and a passion-fruit panna cotta.

At dinner this menu expands to include standards such as roast chicken, grilled hanger steak, and steamed mussels, and it also expands in ambition, with things like a lovely royal-purple puck of beet tartare ornamented with dabs of egg-yolk jam and smears of smoked creme fraiche, all given texture with puffed rice. An intensely seasoned and vividly colored salad of fractal green romanesco cauliflower with sweet-and-sour pickled vegetables and curried farro is both evened out and amped up with harissa-whipped aioli. Lengths of grilled octopus appendage take a similar North African spin with ras el hanout-spiced chickpeas and smoked-paprika aioli topped with a relish made from the spring's first ramps.

At the moment the menu is rife with such springlike seasonality—it might already have changed by the time you read this. You can insert your own cliches about the promise of spring baseball, but fresh morels, asparagus, and English peas will never get old. Wentworth dispatches the last in a vivid emerald-colored risotto, a platform for a thick slab of fatty porchetta, itself supporting charred carrot sticks. Tiny morels and shimeji mushrooms lurk amid tangles of arugula pappardelle tossed with a puree made from charred asparagus. Ramps figure again in a structure of roasted halibut and shrimp-stuffed agnolotti too rigid to match the tender fish.

One item seems destined for permanence. You didn't really think there would be no goat on the menu, did you? Here it takes the form of a long, plump, robustly barnyardy bratwurst, smothered in shaved fennel and sauerkraut and dwarfing its buttery brioche bun. Its explosive juiciness warrants the use of safety goggles. Staying on the subject of baseball, desserts by sous chef Alexander Willis feature a "crackerjack" doughnut studded with popped sorghum and crushed peanut. But it's the arresting chocolate-Fernet sundae that still haunts me, a pool of green mint oil atop mint ice cream bedecked with Fernet-infused chocolate ganache and whipped cream.

Dishes like that may establish Mordecai as a destination outside of a trip to the ballpark—I certainly wanted to avoid it on game day. But on the evening I did it was still surprisingly crowded and boisterous, and the giant Gallagher screen was still lighting the room brightly enough to shrink tumors. On the occasion I didn't, it was peaceful and nearly empty between the first pitch and final out—the bouncer had nothing to do unless you opened the front door. The stadium was gorgeous in the twilight, and the periodic swells of the crowd were hypnotic. There was only a single litter of yawping Cubs bros in matching caps and pinstripes that ambled by the open window and with the stupidity natural to their species felt compelled to heckle, though that was enough to spark anxiety about what would happen when Wrigley Field emptied.

There's a second-floor patio where you can avoid that kind of hazard, but despite the awesome public spectacle of its environment, Mordecai somehow still feels unnervingly overexposed to the lubricated chaos of postgame Wrigleyville.  v

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