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Review Mon Dec 10 2012

Carriage House: a Tale of Grits and That Thing Called Supper

Photo courtesy of Carriage House

It seems that the Wicker Park restaurant formula these days involves trading in the standard black apron for woodsmithing aprons and flannel, and making sure your staff dons an appropriate amount of facial hair while creating a cocktail list with ingredients that you nor your guests will ever be able to decipher (is that some type of fly fishing tackle in my drink and seriously, why does every drink need a bitter in it?) Making sure the people behind those aprons are attractive isn't a bad idea, either. Carriage House perfects at its Wicker Park location, a hop, skip and a jump from its big sister The Bedford.

Let me start off by congratulating Carriage House, being the North Carolina lowcountry southern concept that that they are, on getting the semantics down and calling dinner supper. Let me also congratulate them on having one heck of a knowledgeable waitstaff and the best glass of white wine (Domaine de L'Aujardière Val de Loire, a French Chardonnay) that I've come across at a restaurant in a while.

IMG_4498.jpgThe interior is cozy and approachable, even though the distance between the tables and door might be too close for comfort in the winter. The open kitchen line and a bar that invites you to sit down and drink something warm adds a hospitable character to it. Easy to be missed, there are two chef's tables/bar stools for two on each side of the line. A detail that I didn't catch until leaving but one for which I'm solely going back.

Most of the menu consists of small plates of classic fare, such as fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits, while also providing interpretations on dishes such as mushrooms, truffle, and egg over baked grits, and quail with a mirepoix pickle relish. For "supper" they offer a nice but small selection of entrees: Carolina grouper, crispy braised pork shoulder, buttermilk marinated ribeye and a lowcountry boil.

Alone I most likely would have stuck with the traditional side, but I was with a group and, except for the low country boil, we went modern. The mushroom, egg and truffle dish with a beautiful layer of grits and perfectly cooked mushrooms was overly salty and rich. The pork shoulder was unexciting, but all meat lovers will probably delight in the pleasure of a hunk of meat on a plate. The rabbit chaurice sausage in the lowcountry boil was one of the best sausages I've had in a while, just spicy enough, just gamey enough -- more, please -- and a nice high-five to Carriage House for including a big piece of bread to dip in the delicious broth; if there's anything Mark Steuer learned from his mama, I bet it was to never waste anything, especially good broth. The Carolina gold rice balls didn't make sense to me but anything fried with pimento cheese is heading in the right direction of awesome.

Carriage House cornbread

You can't talk about southern cooking without talking cornbread. Carriage House delivers with a side of it in a miniature black iron skillet topped with peach jam and foie gras butter. The texture was spot on -- a perfectly golden brown, yet soft crust that yielded a clean slice -- though more savory than cornbread should be (and probably what the jam is for). They would be just fine doing away with the jam and reducing the butter by half, letting the cornbread speak for itself, or at least serving the accompaniments on the side, but I get what Mark is trying to do with it and I appreciate the interpretation -- at the end of the day, cornbread is still just cornbread.

We finished off with the Praline pecan sundae -- bourbon caramel, butter-pecan ice cream, brown sugar shortbread, which everyone seems to rave about so I'll chalk it up to getting the wrong bite on the plate -- overly salted, an awkward texture, no satisfying warmth or melt-in-your-mouthness that rich desserts should provide. I was disappointed, anticipating the swollen hands the next day from all the salt I had just consumed; my dinner mates shoved more spoonfuls into their mouths. Maybe it was me.

Overall, Carriage House delivered on the southern, lowcountry vibe that I expect I'd find in North Carolina while providing a modern, yet eccentric enough spin to be called hipstery (for lack of a better Wicker Park descriptor). The food didn't hit home runs, but it did provide a warmth and familiarity that happens in the south when people get together at a table over shared plates and bread dripping in broth, for a minute forgetting that they are in Chicago and it isn't appropriate to put your elbows on the table. If the mushroom, grit and egg dish had been less salty and the lowcountry boil had been twice the size with more seafood I would've thought that for a minute if I tried hard enough, I could hear a "Y'all" in the background. Carriage House was good enough for me to go back and cozy up to the chef's table, and I hope when I do that it's great. The proof is in the cornbread.

Carriage House
1700 W. Division St.

PS. Carriage House recently started serving brunch. Bring on the bloody mirabelle!

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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