If Split-Rail opened for breakfast and lunch I could see hanging out there all day talking to myself about chicken McNuggets. This bright, airy, open, industrial space in Humboldt Park, bedecked with fox-hunt-themed banquettes and vintage cheesecake from legendary pinup artist Gil Elvgren, is the home of a new restaurant from former Ada Street chef Zoe Schor, who offers, on a oddly constructed menu, a bowl of five bronzed chicken nuggets at almost twice what you'd pay for a ten-piece under the Golden Arches.
Did you know that there are four canonical McNugget shapes? That would be the bell, the ball, the boot, and the bow tie. Far from the mechanically separated molded poultry slurry imprinted on your taste memory, Schor's nuggets are supersize balls of chicken thigh forcemeat bearing a tongue-tingling hit of jalapeño, jacketed in a crackly, razor-thin batter. Served with a sharp, almost sulfurous honey-mustard dipping sauce, these scarfable advances on the American fast-food icon could easily become a Schor signature, something she'll be required to serve for the rest of her career.
The nuggets are the anchor of the chef's gently satirical homage to the traditionally beige foodways of the white midwestern casserole belt. Schor, who grew up in Boston before clocking time in the kitchens of superchefs such as Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio, and Todd English, has jokes. She'll knock you dead with a dish of pillowy, Parisian-style potato gnocchi, dressed to impress with proverbial Wendy's spud fixin's—bacon, chopped scallions, sour cream, crispy potato skin, and sharp five-year-old cheddar. The insipid elements of Thanksgiving's dreary perennial vegetal mush—the green bean casserole—have been replaced by snappy al dente, emerald-colored beans, oyster and cremini mushrooms in heavy cream and butter, and frazzled onions. The buffet line spills over to the dessert menu too, with a vibrant strawberry Jell-O mold with a base of buttermilk panna cotta and a crushed-pretzel topping.
Schor's menu, somewhat unhelpfully, is divided among "Bar Bites" (like the nuggets), "Split-Rail Classics" (gnocchi), "Small Plates of Vegetables and Other Things," and "The Rest of It" (a salad, an entree, and a giant steak). Under that last, seemingly throwaway category are two of Schor's most forgettable efforts: charred octopus lost among an overabundance of arugula, and the cutesy "duck in three acts" (rare breast, dry croquette, runny egg).
Residing among the "Classics" is a cheffy reinterpretation of fajitas: masa approaching a Cream of Wheat texture forms a canvas for dollops of pureed onion, avocado, and red pepper and a fan of seared sirloin slices draped with pickled jalapeño. It's difficult to detect the prized uni butter among a heavy pile of linguine and clams in the same group, a dish missing its inherent brininess and lightness. But then we come to the fourth entry in this peculiar category: chips and sour-cream-and-onion dip. I recently noted that Daisies chef Joe Frillman is putting actual potato chips and onion dip on his menu as if he's hosting a rec-room spin-the-bottle party. Schor had the same idea but instead serves her bronzed spuds with a side of orangescent trout roe, hiking the cost to $18. Overall the menu is attractively priced, but in the case of the chips and dip it's good enough to lower your head and ignore the offense.
Split-Rail's MO is similar to Daisies in another respect. In addition to her clever and frequently delicious takes on midwestern cuisine, Schor addresses the prevailing menu trends of the day with a pair of toasts: a lovely construction of fresh ricotta, grilled apricot, and lightly pickled cucumber; and an intensely meaty strata of buttery country-ham salad, green tomato, and tangy marinated anchovy.
There's also the now-mandatory deference to the plant world. In addition to the aforementioned green bean casserole, a pair of salads, one assertively red with radicchio, red cabbage, and beets, is a wake-up call to the part of your brain that reacts greedily to acidity, while a no less brazen bowl of Little Gem lettuce and radish ribbons is punched up with crispy deep-fried ham bits, assertive blue cheese, and garlicky bread crumbs.
Split-Rail's menu is mined with deliciousness, but I think the most reliable category of Schor's curiously designed document is the "bar bites," which include the toasts and the nuggets but also a lamb tartare accented with a swoosh of black garlic aioli that will appeal to the bloodsucking goth you've locked inside for so long. There's also a pair of sirloin beef skewers with all the iron-rich minerality of Peruvian-style grilled beef heart coated in a thick green chimichurri. Waffled focaccia finger sandwiches, seductively sticky with a warm honey glaze, conceal layers of pork-butter n'duja and grilled eggplant. These snacks embody the qualities by which I think the restaurant will best be embraced.
Split-Rail's also a good place to drink. A versatile beverage program from Ada Street alums Brenna Washow and Michelle Szot features more than a dozen cocktails, ranging from classics to low- and no-proof options to a fiscally irresponsible $18 tepache (fermented pineapple, cinnamon, and brown sugar) and mezcal mix, made with the exquisite Wahaka brand, a spirit better served unadulterated. But there are plenty of more budget-friendly options. Originals include the Armory Show, a brooding rye, amaro, and Fernet potion that somehow winningly evokes a piece of grandma's horehound candy, and the even more stygian Path to the Black Lodge, a combination of Punt e Mes, amaro, and Tennessee whiskey that's the kind of thing that can gird you, even if just for the night, for whatever inevitable struggles lie ahead.
It's tricky to pay homage to home-style midwestern culinary values without inadvertently sneering with condescension or veering toward kitsch. Schor avoids these traps by just being a damn good chef. v
Correction: This review has been amended to reflect the number of chicken nuggets in an order.