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Review Mon Apr 28 2014
When Robert Haynes and Henry Prendergast were envisioning the concept for Logan Square's Analogue, the new "casual" departure from what the two were previously executing at Violet Hour, they wanted a take on a regional cuisine. Enter friend and breakthrough chef Alfredo Nogueira, a New Orleans native who moonlighted briefly at Rootstock and ran several pop-up dinners before landing the audition. Cajun/Creole is the quintessential of regional cuisine-- shaped by the people, culture and local ingredients. Nogueira, who is only industry and self-trained, apparently was very convincing.
Being Cajun, I was particularly interested in checking out Analogue, but a craft cocktail meets Cajun/Creole concept? I wasn't convinced. While these type of concepts can be seen throughout New Orleans, like Sobou and perhaps, Tivoli and Lee, you'd have a hard time finding them in Cajun country, and neither of the aforementioned are authentic to the regional style with their menus, edging more towards contemporary American with cajun/creole influences. The only cohesiveness I could see was the fact that Analogue was a sidestep from Violet Hour, and Cajun/Creole are culinary analogues. Clever, but could that translate into an actual concept?
The short answer: yes and no.
The bar is hard to find, and you may walk past The Owl wondering if you got the address wrong. The resulting dark interior also suggests that this is a place that wants to fly under the radar, which of course is the formula these days for achieving just the opposite. As expected, they are getting creative with the drink program, but not as creative as one would hope with the theme -- if you were to pull the Dixie Lager off the menu you probably wouldn't know you were drinking in a place that served this sort of food. One could argue that the drink menu doesn't need to replicate the kitchen, but I would have liked to see more integration. You'd likely want to take a trip, however, just to learn what purls are, or to enjoy paying only $10 for a craft cocktail made by Violet Hour vets.
Nogueira's menu is filled with traditional Cajun/Creole fare -- gumbo, dirty rice, po-boys... and if you're going to put the name Cajun/Creole behind something in my book, gumbo is something you had better serve to do it justice.
If you're familiar with gumbo, Nogueira's version visually makes you pause due to the drizzle of thick, neon hot sauce on the top and a fried, fat glistening piece of sausage resting on a scoop of potato salad. This is no usual presentation. The color edges on the lighter side, which can be a good, not a bad thing, and the consistency is slightly thinner (thicker and darker does not necessarily mean better when it comes to gumbo). I appreciated the chicken and sausage approach, when most do seafood. Even if it was slightly bland, I also appreciated the substitution of potato salad instead of rice, as this is the kind of thing that only occurs in home kitchens. (Generally, the potato salad, which is served as a side dish, becomes another vehicle to extend the gumbo once you run out of rice).
Minus the unnecessary decorative streak, and balancing out the total flavor profile with more vegetables in the base if I had to guess, the gumbo got a thumbs up in execution. I still need to get to Blue Island's Maple Tree Inn, so I won't call it the best gumbo in Chicago, and I still need to go there a second time to make sure this wasn't just a good batch, but from a fellow Cajun, Analogue got my seal of approval when it comes to a Cajun-style gumbo, something until now, I haven't found.
Among other items, the biscuits that are sure to give Endgrain a run for new best biscuit title come with a side of red pepper jelly and a Louisiana Steen's syrup butter. The red pepper jelly falls a bit short of the signature heat, leaning more on the sweet side, but the biscuit, both tender and flaky, does just fine on its own. The smoked whitefish dip served with packaged saltine crackers pops with that necessary smoke, and a dash of the house-made hot sauce makes for a finger licking good experience. In the honor of blending the craft cocktail concept with the menu, I would have liked them to ditch the traditional packaged saltine for a house made cracker, but that would definitely be very un-Louisianan of me to suggest.
Nogueira interprets a Scottish egg by wrapping it in a house-made boudin, a pulverized combination of cooked rice, pork, onions, green peppers, and seasonings, instead of the traditional sausage--and serves it with pickled peppers and mustard, and probably the best thing on the menu, the dirty rice, also known as rice dressing, packed with spice and rich liver flavor, is one you'll want to try. Have a bowl, hell, have two. (Let it be known that the pendulum swings too far in definition here with the dirty rice being "wetter" and "dirtier" than normal, but it works for the "absolutely dirty" description.)
Overall, the menu is well-thought out for a Cajun/Creole concept, and Nogueira may have gotten as close to my Cajun roots with his interpretation as I've seen in Chicago. I look forward to the authenticity, execution and influence he will bring to the menu and to Chicago's exposure to Cajun and Creole cuisine.
The bar program does need to find a balance between what the kitchen is doing to make complete sense, but maybe in Logan Square, you just don't need to. Go for the food, stay for the drinks and dancing, and ponder how Cajun/Creole became the new trend.
Image courtesy of Analogue