Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

unfinished business

I’ve had only one real regret since my arrival in Chicago when it comes to eating out. Last August, you may remember, we diverted from our original plan of spending an evening at a Ukrainian Village hot spot in favor of a restaurant we saw on “No Reservations.” It was the first time I’d ever really had a bad experience at a Chicago restaurant, and the first time either of us ever sent food back to the kitchen. We went so far as dubbing The Silver Palm “The Runaway Train” (because the dining room is in an old passenger train car). More than that, we never made it to our original destination: The Old Oak Tap.

Tonight, we finally made the trip.

I first found out about The Old Oak Tap from a book that my mother gave us, called “Eat. Shop. Chicago.” It lists all kinds of great local restaurants and shops that operate primarily as neighborhood spots, and this place is certainly a neighborhood bar.

The place opens at 5 pm during the week and most people who arrived while we were there arrived on foot. There’s a patio/beer garden in the front, just recently opened (because it’s in the 60s here this week), and the windows across the front of the restaurant allow natural light to set the mood. The fixtures inside are reminscent of the kind of pendant lights found in a church, and there are several plaques of white antlers on the wall. Wood accents dominate the place, and the walls are a calm green. Booths and chairs are comfortable, and music is loud, but still tolerable. We declared the place, “very comfortable,” and resolved early to return just for the ambiance and the comprehensive drink selection.

We sat at a table near the fireplace and ordered appetizers: fried pickle chips with Green Goddess dressing, and house-made pretzels with a horseradish mustard and a cheddar-stout fondue sauce. The pretzels were awesome–crunchy, not overly-breaded, and tart. Green Goddess, a ranch/dill mix, added to the flavor. As for the pretzels, these looked like a small croissant and were exactly what I like in a fresh pretzel: heavy but soft, and just a little salty. Mustard goes on everything called a pretzel as far as I’m concerned, and this grainy, spicy stuff improved each bite. As for the fondue, it reminded me of mall pretzel cheese sauce, with a little more flavor. I could have gone without it, but it worked anyway.

Monday’s food special is the signature Old Oak Burger (cooked to order, with cheddar, onion jam, and the house special sauce), and a choice of side, all for $5. Michonne ordered it with bacon and fries (which were impressive), and her friend Iris ordered it with the loaded mashed potatoes (the cheese sauce, bacon, and chives), while I ventured further down the menu.

I ordered the chicken and waffles. Sweet potato waffles, chicken fingers, a house-made peach jam, maple aioli, and andouille sausage gravy. I love sausage gravy, normally on biscuits, and this could have not been a better addition. The whole flavor profile was complex but also very rustic: sweet, slightly tangy, crunchy, and salty at once. If I hadn’t eaten so many of the pretzels and the pickles, I would have cleaned the plate. They do weekend brunch and I’m hoping it’ll end up on that menu along with the biscuits and gravy (which is my favorite breakfast item, but I digress).

While everything was very good, including the service and the atmosphere, we were decidedly not blown away. Yes, we will be back to The Old Oak Tap, but we won’t necessarily hurry back. One thing is for sure: We should have made this trip last August.

Rating: It Does Not Suck

The Old Oak Tap is a 2012 Michelin Guide recommendation, and is at 2109 W. Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village.

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