One recent evening, near the end of a meal at Lincoln Park's White Oak Tavern & Inn, my table had fallen comfortably silent, contemplating a mostly satisfying succession of earthy, soulful dishes made with products sourced almost religiously from the midwest. Suddenly, across the emptying dining room, a tall blond woman staggered up from her seat and began to struggle into a white fur jacket that might have been skinned from a yeti. Upon noticing us, she raised a bony claw in our direction and, with a volume that likely once served her well as captain of the sorority bullying squad, observed, "Those guys look like they've been roofied!" Undiscouraged by the lack of response from her large group of companions, she repeated herself over and over until they all shuffled out on the sidewalk, where she continued to cackle at us through the window until she was poured into a car and locked back up in the Closet of Cliches.
Servers rolled their eyes, and we offered our sympathies when told that in the restaurant's short life span she'd become a regular. With regulars like that, I'm not sure this little pocket of Lincoln Park deserves a restaurant worth going out of the way for. Historically it hasn't had many. Sure, Floriole does great things next door, and for a few minutes there was the late Kith & Kin, but for the most part this stretch of Webster has been home to some pretty uninspired eating options.
So credit goes to owner John Manilow (brother of Check, Please! producer David), who shuttered his family-friendly comfort-food joint John's Place (the Lakeview location is still running) and tapped Trio and Alinea vet John Asbaty to open this very different sort of restaurant. But don't expect any manipulated modernist takes on kale salad or rainbow trout. For six years Asbaty ran the kitchen at the South Loop Italian deli and sandwich shop Panozzo's, and his cooking continues to be grounded in simple, real food executed with exceptional technique.
At a glance his menu doesn't seem much more inspired than those at the dozens of newer middling restaurants trafficking in the standard charcuterie, burgers, roasted chicken, and house-made pasta, but the kitchen is operating on a different level. Take a seasonal vegetable tartare: a sizable deposit of finely brunoised multicolored root vegetables (someone got an A in Knife Skills) crowned with a golden sous-vide duck yolk and piled atop of a slice of fried bread schmeared with cool, creamy quark cheese. The elements in this fragile environment come together so beautifully you wonder why you've never experienced the combination before. The last two components, the bread and the cheese, are just two examples of the extraordinarily good things going on with dairy and grains in the house.
Sous chef David Castillo has created a three-option bread service of the kind you don't mind paying for ($7 apiece), including sweetly shellacked biscuits that look like chunks of roasted pork belly—crunchy on the outside, moist in the interior, served with honey butter and peach preserves. Dense rye bread is studded with bits of dried fruit and smeared with maple butter. Almost cakelike focaccia with onions embedded on the surface get treated with creme fraiche and goat cheese.
Dairywise there's an amorphous, creamy house-made mozzarella sprinkled with pine nuts that tastes like its milk came from the cow that morning. A recent special featured a smoked trout spread with yogurt and creme fraiche colored an unnerving green from mint and tarragon but tasting just as fresh—in contrast to the stale house-made potato chips that came on the plate.
Fresh dairy balances and boosts dishes all over the menu, from the bacon-buttermilk vinaigrette on an outstanding kale and Swiss chard salad to the yogurt that dresses the cabbage and nutty farro under the grilled chicken to the yogurt that again supports carrots and charred cabbage, their natural flavors concentrated in a slow roast.
About that grilled chicken: at a jaw-dropping $27 for a half bird, it should be a lot less briny tasting. It's a reminder that not every menu is perfect, also evident in a plate of spaghetti carbonara with promising individual elements—tensile house-made noodles and smoked bread crumbs—undermined by a thin, watery sauce. The cheeseburger could have been among the best I've eaten in years, with its crunchy blackened exterior giving way to an intensely beefy core. Too bad it's sandwiched in a fragile, biscuitlike bun that disintegrates in the gooey cheddar and butterkase.
Still, there's not much more to whine about. Wedge fries—a style not often seen in recent times—are creamy inside with an almost translucent crispy exterior (skip the treacly smoked ketchup for the molten cheese sauce). On a "duck board," the perfectly decent duck liver mousse and pickled cauliflower are upstaged by a crispy-skinned confit duck leg.
Anchoring the menu are four large "platters" (which before the age of shareable plates we used to call "entrees"), including the chicken as well as a whole roasted rainbow trout. There's also a thick, luscious fatty pork collar steak served with wintry accompaniments: sweet-potato puree, kale, apples, and kohlrabi. But the dish that speaks most to the quality coming out of this kitchen—and one dish I'm sure I'll remember all year—is a thick slab of beef shoulder. Braised for 24 hours and then seared off in cast iron, it's served with pureed potato, spinach, thin raw purple carrot shavings, and horseradish. It doesn't fall apart like a typical fatty slow-cooked cut, and has a tender yet muscular texture unlike anything I've encountered.
In addition to such unmemorable desserts as a chocolate cake and a busy buttermilk tart loaded with apples, cranberry sorbet, and bourbon-maple sauce, there's a likable brown-butter cake with lightly salted sections of orange and grapefruit and a plate of chocolate chip cookies I'll also remember all year. Thick and almost muffinlike, they're served warm, punctuated with molten deposits of chocolate and slathered with thick, sweet caramelized-milk icing.
There's a surprisingly abbreviated wine list for a place that attracts such uninhibited imbibers, 11 whites and 12 reds including a California claret with a modest markup that might make the best deal on the list. There are also ten bottled beers (four on draft) and a cocktail list from Danielle Sander ranging from a watery manhattan to a bracing "Pepper Smash" made with oaked grappa and pepper tea. But perhaps the most remarkable things on hand to drink are the 11 vermouths that offer a wide variety of radically different flavor profiles.
Finally, there's one nice amenity I'll be sure remember next time: the White Oak Tavern & Inn actually is an inn, with two rooms for rent upstairs if, say, one of the delightful regulars slipped you a roofie and you need a place to crash.