Charlie's Ale House in Andersonville was the sort of place that refused to register when I passed it by, though if I thought about it I could easily see it multiplying in mall parking lots across America. But it closed in October, and about a month ago the Navy Pier location—the only link left in what once seemed a embryonic mass-market chain—followed. Owners Marty Fosse and Tim Rasmussen have abruptly reconceived the Andersonville location as Acre, presumably to take advantage of the current Pollan-driven rage for anti-industrial pastoralism.
A respectable selection of craft beers and wines are pushed behind the original curvilinear wooden bar on the dim, gloomy tavern side, while the dining room has been done up in sunset-toned American Gothic, its walls appointed with obsolete farm implements, one of which, I was entertained to hear, is called a "diggler."
I heard it from Rasmussen himself—the kind of active yet noninvasive host that any restaurant would be lucky to have. He brings to both sides of the place the genuine personality it needs, and some honesty about what he thinks the kitchen is—or isn't—doing particularly well on a given day. He sold me on the lamb meatballs, kind of a Mexican pot-a-feu with silky but solid boiled potato quarters and two large, dense albondigas in a clear poblano-spiked broth. He was right on the money about it—but wrong about the aromatic rosemary and bitter-sour kumquat creme brulee, which he was so unsure of that he presented it to our table for free. It wasn't overpowering, as he'd feared, but rather an interesting and subtle treatment of one of the most tired desserts around.
Chef Carlos Ysaguirre, who also commands the kitchen next door at Anteprima, has separate menus for the bar and the dining room, each one changing practically daily and each one actually available on the other side. Anteprima remains on its tour-bus route around the regions of Italy; but Acre's influences seem to be all over the place, and not exactly typical of the farm-to-table conceit. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but what's clear is that the chef is still playing around with things.
And that's kind of interesting to follow, even if, say, a gratin served in a miniature cast-iron Dutch oven is a buttery swamp of thin-sliced, grayish sunchokes topped with slender wiggly shimeji mushrooms and a quivering poached egg—oddly comforting but so rich and so unattractive it was impossible to swallow more than two bites. Or if perhaps seared foie gras is left cold in the middle and, in a serious mismatch, mounted on sweet-potato puree. Or if the mac 'n' cheese might be built on a floury broken bechamel.
Between the two menus there's such a confusion of variety (it even befuddles the waitstaff) that missteps seem inevitable. While Ysaguirre might benefit from focusing on what works and sticking with it, the things that do work now have worked hard to win me over, including a truly outstanding burger with house-made whole grain mustard, just one of many condiments made from scratch here. Also, a brilliantly colored squash risotto speckled with pomegranate seeds and blobs of goat cheese that showed up one night and a grilled Spanish mackerel with preserved lemon that brightened up another. Some warhorses received perfectly respectable treatment too—a roasted sea bass on a buttery bed of quinoa with melted leeks, a seared duck breast on wheatberries sweetened up with fig jam.
Ysaguirre eschews the farm-name-dropping so prevalent in menu writing these days. It's a refreshing change.