I tried to eat way more meat than is good for the body at Tête Charcuterie, but for days afterward all I could think about was a salad.
Tête—or "Head," as the Francophobes among its future fans will one day call it for short—aims to win them over with its cured meat. The restaurant, on the lonelier west end of the Randolph restaurant row, has a small handicap in bringing them in: chefs Thomas Rice and Kurt Guzowski have a particularly French way of looking at the preservation of meat and the way one should appreciate it. For example: When Chad and Trixie look at the menu and mull over which cured meats, terrines, and pâtés they'll order, there won't be any cheeses to distract them. "See, stupide," she'll admonish him. "French dudes eat cheese at the end of dinner—after they're already full."
The restaurant exists as a sort of testament to how far the city has come in tolerating the ancient art of turning the animal you killed in the fall into something that keeps you from starving to death in the winter (see Genesis 9:3*). Chicago is in a golden age of charcuterie, as witnessed by the popularity of cheffy meat shops like the Butcher & Larder and PQM and strictly production start-ups like Nduja Artisans and West Loop Salumi.
It's the latter concern, with its curing room right across the street from Tête, that provides about half of the slow-cured fermented sausages on the menu—coppa, finocchiona, and so on. That's just for now. Behind the open kitchen, there's a fully licensed temperature-and-humidity-controlled curing room, hung with ripening tubes of meat, their casings blossoming with the ammoniated, snowy-white growth** that helps bring forth the miracle of salami.
At the moment Tête only has a few of its own cured sausages available—either a la carte (in one-ounce or one-and-a-half ounce portions) or arrayed on charcuterie boards featuring an ever-rotating assortment that includes the various pâtés and terrines made in-house. The cured sausages are on display in a glass case behind the bar that runs perpendicular to the open kitchen, and in a glass-enclosed annex housing a meat grinder and sausage stuffer.
The a la carte options are pricey, most in the $12 to $15 range, topping out at $30 for a serving of lean Wagyu beef loin—the scarlet meat soft, nutty, and appropriately funky, a credible bresaola that nonetheless seems like a misplaced application for this famously fatty breed. The charcuterie boards prove a better value, the only hitch being that the selection itself is at the whim of the kitchen. Still, with some 11 samples coming out on the larger $45 board, you'll get a good sense of what they're capable of: lush, smoky, tissue-thin ribbons of nearly full-fat bacon that practically dissolve in the mouth; wine-and-garlic-enriched Rosette de Lyon, the rosy pork flecked with ivory-white fat; dense coppa that seems curiously underseasoned in light of its Sichuan peppercorn rub.
It's famously tricky to season sausages, pâtés, and terrines because it's done when they're cold and raw, and flavor is diminished. A cautious touch with salt and spice is something of an issue in a few other instances too, such as the creamy, pistachio-studded mortadella in which it's difficult to detect the promised coriander, or in some of the terrines and pâtés that could use a bit more salt.
But you couldn't ask for more texturally pleasing meat loaves, particularly the signature headcheese, carved into porky blocks glistening with aspic; or a pork pâté embedded with chunks of veal sweetbread brightened with sour cherry; or the pâté en croute, a shell of golden pastry encasing layers of duck, truffle, and foie gras. The enjoyment of all of these, as well as a chicken terrine with olive, carrot, and red pepper, is aided immensely by a house-made whole-grain mustard, which delivers a nasal-burnishing burst of heat.
Four different fresh sausages are given various global treatments, the headliner a natural-casing Chicago-style dog with an intense spice profile and audible snap. There's also a plump French boudin blanc with lentils and a leek vinaigrette, gilded with a slice of the house bacon, and a coarsely ground German bratwurst drizzled with the wine and vinegar solution it's cooked in that gives it a curious blue tint.*** All are expertly stuffed and compellingly presented, but they're trumped by a pair of sweet-hot Filipino longaniza links with a jiggly egg on a bed of crispy garlic and dried-shrimp fried rice, a dish that wouldn't seem out of place on the menu at Fat Rice.
That sort of versatile fluency extends to a selection of shareable smaller plates and a few larger entrees. There's a pickled beef cheek "salad," which is really just a pile of some of the lushest corned beef you'll ever meet, garnished with capers and raw onion. And two browned towers of pork belly with alternating stories of cottony fat and chewy flesh are served with a small crock of umami-loaded XO sauce—a pairing that has a brain-rattling effect.
Not everything makes the case for the excellence of animal eating. A pair of squishy sweetbreads is washed in a too-sweet sauce hiding under sheets of solidified brown butter croquant. On the other hand, a plate of tagliatelle made from the previous day's leftover bread, sauced with a beef heart ragu spiked with pig's blood, is a compelling case for kitchen economy that goes far beyond the nose-to-tail ethos (sadly, with the turn of season it's been 86'd).
Lest the previous descriptions give you the notion that Tête is a haven for wanton bloodmouthing, many other dishes demonstrate an advanced finesse and mastery of technique with delicate proteins and vegetables often seen in settings more formal than this one. Slices of dense, chewy, curry-spiced cured fluke, every bit as concentrated in flavor as the cured meats, are garnished with slices of hearts of palm dressed with citrusy aji pepper vinaigrette. Two cylinders of pure-white rabbit loin and a single "scotch" snail coated in a jacket of fried and breaded rabbit meat are bedecked with ramp leaves and thin disks of vibrant pink radish. Even a tired menu standby like beet salad is given new life with a dollop of goat cheese ice cream and a pistachio-avocado dressing.
Which brings me around to the aforementioned salad that stuck with me long after my meals at Tête. Titled "Spring Garden," it's a riff on "gargouillou of young vegetables," a symphonic springtime signature dish of French superchef Michel Bras that incorporates dozens of different ingredients (they also do a famous version at New York's Corton, where Rice once worked). As my pal and I steadily picked our way through this precisely arranged forest of baby vegetables, we counted nearly 30 different elements, from charred romanesco cauliflower to sauteed chanterelles to tiny carrots, ramps, favas, white asparagus, and green strawberry. It sounds like a mess, but I had more fun navigating it than I had with almost anything I've eaten all year. And no animals were harmed in the making of this salad.
It's easy and affirming to conclude a heavy meating at Tête Charcuterie with such a magnificent creation. (There's only one dessert and a single cheese selection, anyway). Along the way it's also easy to pick out something interesting and unusual from the international wine list (all but two bottles under $100), like a dark, fruity, full-bodied French rosé in which the skins were allowed to macerate for 48 hours, or a Calabrian red made with the magliocco varietal, more frequently employed as a blending grape.
Tête is a lot more than just a temple to our culture's insatiable flesh lust. To dismiss it based on its name or concept does everybody a disservice. It's going to be exciting to see what comes out of that curing room in the next few months, but just as exciting to see what comes out of the heads of these two badass chefs.