I love the fact that my husband is from a different part of the country than I am. Before I met and married him, my experience of America was limited to either coast. Now, every year, I get to visit Chicago, my second favorite city, to visit my in-laws. It's behind Boston (where I went to college) and in front of Los Angeles (where I currently live). Since I've been a Left-Coaster for almost two decades I wouldn't/couldn't live in either Chi-town or Beantown because the City of Angels has turned my blood into water and I need to see the sun every day or I burst into tears. I sure do love to visit though. Since he lived/worked in the Windy City before his move out West, he lets me pick and choose where we're going to go even though – as we discovered on our lengthy walk up Michigan Avenue – that the city of his youth is long, long gone.
I have no idea how anybody found anything before the Internet. I probably spend at least 5 times longer researching where we are going to spend our hard-earned dining dollars than we eventually spend in the chosen establishment, but I don't care. I LOVE the search. The trouble with this past trip was our one nice dinner had to occur on a Sunday, apparently a day of rest for many of Chicago's fine dining choices. My desire to visit any of Rick Bayless' restaurants was thwarted once again. All three were closed on the Lord's Day. I was told emphatically by my boss that I HAD to go to Crofton on Wells. Well, I would have liked to, but no dice. Tru, nope. Charlie Trotter's, sorry. Alinea was open, but we're not into food THAT much.
Man, did I have to put Yelp to work. Thankfully, it helped me discover the Custom House Tavern. We wanted a place that was semi-casual, had a good/great wine list and was within walking distance to our hotel. No Metro or taxi needed. Wish Yelp had mentioned it was the "house" restaurant of the Hotel Blake, a newly-renovated, 162-room gem located in the 19th-century Morton and Duplicator building on Printer's Row. If we had stayed there we would have already been home. In any case, this place is a tavern in name only. The decor is sleek and modern, yet still warm and inviting. If there was a game we actually cared about we would have eaten in the bar, which was tricked out with spacious booths that each had flat screen TVs.
From what I've read the Custom House was initially helmed by Chef Shawn McClain (who's made his fame running Spring and Green Zebra), but has recently been taken over by Chef Aaron Deal (a 2009 James Beard Rising Star Semi-Finalist), who's menu is far too inventive, fresh and classy to be considered mere bar food. Why they added the "Tavern" to the name when he took over is a mystery. Probably to distinguish from its previous incarnation while still retaining name recognition. In any case, we quickly discovered that preparation sometimes leads to a really good meal.
Since we were still a bit palate-fatigued from the night before, we didn't take advantage of their wine list. For once, we focused on the food. Before we even stepped in the door I knew (from other Yelpers) there was one item I had to have – the Duck Rice with Whipped Foie Gras and Toasted Hazelnuts. We were not disappointed. It was one of the best dishes I've had all year – intense, smoky, savory, nutty, goodness. I could eat this dish every day, though my heart and waistline would pay for the indulgence.
Along with foie gras, I've also recently become obsessed with beets over the last few years. I can't help ordering them and especially when they're paired with goat cheese. Their version was pretty, but didn't really pack the flavor punch I was hoping for. Good, yes, yet nothing distinct or special.
For our entrees, we decided to try and be semi- health-conscious and not order any red meat. I was intrigued by the Vegetable Pot Pie and The Man got my second choice the Chicken and Dumplings. Neither was exactly what we expected, but both were simply mouth watering. The chicken was so moist and flavorful I wanted to steal the plate away from him and eat every bite. I don't think he's ever eaten chicken with such pleasure. The pot pie came deconstructed (see photo) which is not usually my cup of tea, but I have to admit it tasted just like it should once I mixed everything together. The layers of crispy, buttery crust tasted perfect and made the meal much lighter than the usual, filling-encased style...or so I'm telling myself. Though mainly vegetables it was heartier than I thought it would be.
They have a pastry chef on staff, one Bryce Caron, but we were so full (and aren't really sweets people) that we skipped that part. Though it wasn't very busy, we failed to capture our waitress's true attention (she was having too much fun with a nearby four-top), but we weren't in a hurry and not in a very chatty mood, so I didn't care all that much. She took our order and got it right. What more does one really need?
The rest of the staff picked up her slack, and we were even treated to an amuse bouche by the Chef – a lovely scallop with celery puree on the cutest little spoons – so that was nice. I also have to mention the actual dishes. They were very modern, all skewed and tilted, which made the food presentation even more visually interesting; however, I have a feeling all the different shapes must be a real pain in the ass for the dishwasher.
All in all, a lovely night out in the South Loop area that left me happily sated and wishing this joint was in my neighborhood. After checking out the lobby of the Blake, I think this will now be our home base in the Windy City.
CUSTOM HOUSE TAVERN
500 S Dearborn St
Chicago, IL 60686
Lisa Dinsmore is a writer, web programmer, movie and wine lover. She currently runs two review websites to share her passions: www.crazy4cinema.com and www.dailywinedispatch.com. She is also the Managing Editor of One for the Table.
by Ann Nichols