Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

home sweet home

We try to be adventurous with our restaurant and food choices, especially for special occasions. Most of our experience with eating unique dishes in the city has come from only a few places (primarily Frontier, but Chicago Curry House and Gilt Bar were unique as well), and we’re always trying to branch out.

Michonne and I have been together for two years now, as of yesterday. To celebrate our anniversary, I got her a bottle of wine as one of her Christmas gifts (which I’ll review later), and told her that our anniversary dinner will be at the BYOB of her choosing.

BYOB, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, means “Bring Your Own Bottle.” Most restaurants that call themselves BYO do so for one of a few reasons: minimize expense on alcohol and focus on food, unable to get a full liquor license, etc. Whatever the reasons, I’ve never had a bad bite at one of these places, so it works. I’d honestly rather eat at a BYO than a restaurant with a bar.

We chose a classic American place at the border of Lakeview and Boystown called Home Bistro. It was on Eater’s list of the 38 essential Chicago restaurants. The reviews online were consistently high, and the 2012 Michelin Guide featured it. The menu is a laundry list of American southern classics (the word “Kentucky” appears on the menu several times) with a few other comfort food dishes in the mix. The owner and executive chef, Joncarl Lachman, is Dutch, so some of the menu items had twists that made them unique. So I called and made reservations (which is required).

We took the Red Line to Belmont and walked through Boystown, up Halsted, and to the small storefront. The place holds maybe 50, and is always packed. We sat at a small table along a hand-tiled mosaic wall, and our waiter, a nice guy in a flannel shirt named Dave, brought us a plate of cubed herbed bread.

With balsamic vinegar.

The olive oil with bread thing has been done to death. I’d like to suggest more restaurants start doing this, because it’s my new favorite snack. This set the tone for the rest of the experience.

We ordered our appetizer, the roasted garlic and escargot with tomato, mandarin orange, and croutons, and it arrived in a soup bowl with a pair of small plates. I’ve never had a broth like this–sweet with herbed undertones that worked perfectly–and the escargot was fork-tender. Perfect.

The specials were chicken scrapple (I had the pork version on the east coast and loved it–it’s like a fatty spam-like meatloaf that sure as hell ain’t Spam, and in all the right ways) and a braised pork shank, but a couple items on the menu caught our eyes: Pan-seared beef heart, and smoked pheasant thighs. We’d never had either, so we ordered them.

When you have no real point of reference for wild/game bird other than duck and squab (my favorite poultry, by the way), having something like pheasant is an experience in itself. It came with a brussels and red onion salad, and a cranberry-jalapeno gastrique on the bird. It was fatty, smoky, salty, sweet, and spicy. And wonderful.

Michonne’s beef heart was not at all what we expected. It came medium-rare, and while it looked like a really good steak, it tasted slightly less beefier, and was almost spongy in texture. We both thought it was incredible. It came with boiled potatoes, cipollini onions (that reminded her of something her mother made her when she was younger), and a prune and veal jus. There’s a name for animal organ meat (I know this thanks to San Francisco chef Chris Cosentino): Offal. There’s nothing awful about it.

Our wine, Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon, was the perfect pairing. Sweet, full-bodied, with just a bit of salt and tart. We agreed that it went down far too easily. I found it at the Printer’s Row Wine Shop at 719 S. Dearborn. Well worth the trip and the price. One of the best parts about this particular place for us is that while many BYOs charge a corkage fee (basically you pay extra for them to open the bottle for you, often around $10), Home Bistro has no such fee. They do enough business to go without it.

We had discussed visiting a dessert spot we’d been to once in the middle of Boystown but decided to go for the full experience. Dessert was easy: She ordered the cranberry brioche bread pudding, and I ordered the almond cake with pear jam.

I didn’t get to have much of the bread pudding, though it’s one of my favorite things, but I can tell you that it was better than Frontier’s, and just as good as anything I’ve had in Louisiana. As for my almond cake, it was like a really, really good gingerbread. Except it was better than any gingerbread I’d ever had. It was soft and flaky, and the jam gave it a hint of sweetness that made it really special.

Our favorite part of the entire experience was the decor and the ethos. We were incredibly comfortable, and the decor, which was kind of a rustic American, with vintage mirrors on the walls, a kind of deep-yellow paint with quotes along the top (Scarlett O’Hara’s “With God as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!” was our favorite), and a bathroom filled with artistic photos and a placard with “Library” on the door, made it feel like we were hanging out at a friend’s house.

Joncarl Lachman and Home Bistro’s Chef, David Cooper, have a great thing going here. Much of the clientele are regulars, and for good reason. The menu is classic Southern American cuisine, and with a friendly, energetic staff running the front of the house, the feeling is casual, even relaxed. We will be back over and over again with friends and family, because this is our new favorite place in the city.

Rating: Religious Experience

Home Bistro is at 3404 N. Halsted Street in Lakeview.

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