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Postcard from Tom: In Chicago, eating casually but thoughtfully

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If there’s a restaurant trend I have no reservations about, it’s lofty chefs turning their attention to casual but thoughtful enterprises. And if there’s one city to explore the movement as it unfolds, it’s Chicago, where I recently ate and drank for 48 (mostly) blissful hours.

“Really great chefs, who have worked in fine dining, are opening personal expressions of their own,” says really great chef Matthias Merges. A veteran of the highly disciplined Charlie Trotter’s, which closed last month after 25 years, Merges last year opened Yusho, a seriously fun Japanese joint. Next month, he plans to open Billy Sunday. A tip of the fedora to the American evangelist who championed Prohibition, the restaurant will highlight a cocktail lounge and a Sunday supper menu.

Asked about what he sees coming from his like-minded peers in Chicago, Merges says, “Our food scene will rival any city in the U.S.”

This diner already thinks that it does.

A salami’s toss from one of Chicago’s early and best gastropubs, Publican in the West Loop, Publican Quality Meats was originally hatched as a way to support the busy restaurant, a second kitchen. By the time it opened in February, the offshoot had grown to be a butcher shop, a lunch stop, a retail space and a bakery.

“Thank you for coming for our childhood!” a manager says to me as he escorts two chow hounds to a long blond table next to a bank of refrigerator cases in the trim cafe. The coolers, stocked with lard and kimchi, speak to the open-minded cook. The slim menu is mostly sandwiches that you wouldn’t make at home: beef tongue and marinated eggplant on rye, for instance, and lamb and pork belly sausage slipped into a lobster roll. Many of the meats in the storefront originate in the spotless basement kitchen, near the restrooms, which is how I got to see blood sausage being cranked out one recent weekend.

Potbelly this isn’t. Buy a muffuletta, and you get a rethought version of the New Orleans signature: olive oil-poached albacore tuna, tonnato sauce and cabbage in sturdy but pillowy slices of bread. Chicken Parmesan, served with tomato sauce and packaged in ciabatta, summons up an Italian mama. (That gentle crackle? Fried sage.) Side dishes include a crunchy raw kale salad that I vow to toss at home. “The key to that is to massage” lemon, honey and chili into the sturdy greens, head chef Chris Kuziemko, 34, later shares over the telephone. “Give it some love.”

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” says Kuziemko, whose meat display contains dry-aged rib-eye, blood mortadella, best-selling chicken liver pâtéand mica, a pleasantly funky sausage fermented in rye flour. “You can’t get complacent.” No baloney.

Publican Quality Meats’ theme extends to restrooms wallpapered with designs of butcher knives and charcuterie-friendly, occasionally beefy, drinks. Order a bloody mary, and the eye-opener comes with a jaw-dropper: a “garnish” of cornichon, olive, cheese and sausage.

825 W. Fulton Market St. 312-445-8977. publicanqualitymeats.
com. Sandwiches, $8 to $12.

Brothers Michael and Pat Sheerin named their joint restaurant Trenchermen because they liked the gusto it summoned. Plus, the word embraces more than food and drink. As Michael, 36, says, “It’s living life to the fullest.”

The siblings are serious talents who delight in surprises, such as adding white balsamic ice cream to a summery plate of heirloom tomatoes. Their point: The silken snow-white ice cream fills the role typically played by mozzarella. “We want to be a little witty,” says Michael. “Make things fun.”

The sentiment leaps off every plate of their lively, 5,700-square-foot restaurant, which opened in Wicker Park in July. In one memorable dish this summer, sepia, or cuttlefish, were sliced into noodles and served against cubes of pickled watermelon and a swipe of avocado puree in a deep white bowl. A lot of American restaurants offer short ribs, but no others that I’m aware of flank (smoked) beef with tubes of pasta made bright yellow with ground mustard or add crumbled trencheritos, or corn chips, to give the comfort crunch. Sweetbreads, cured like bacon with maple and brown sugar, are splashed with Chinese XO sauce and topped with shaved carrots, zingy thanks to a lime bath.

“We like to take something people are familiar with and serve it unexpectedly,” says Michael. Yet the brothers’ taste tricks never venture into gimmickry.

The résumé, please: Pat, 38, helmed the sky-high Signature Room at the 95th for almost a decade, while Michael, a 2010 Food & Wine Best New Chef, has cooked in both the Windy City (Blackbird) and in New York (WD-50). Trenchermen is not the first restaurant where they’ve cooked together. That distinction goes to two celebrated restaurants in their home town, the late, modern American Toque (where the Sheerins worked by day) and the French-accented Everest (by night).

Trenchermen’s sweeping bar and dining room replace an old Turkish bathhouse that some young diners remember attending with their fathers. Where a pool once drew patrons seeking a cool plunge, a bar now serves cocktails with such amusing tags as the Bridge and Tunnel — for the uninitiated, that’s carbonated, lemon-infused vodka, white zinfandel and celery bitters. “Dangerously refreshing,” reports Pat.

2039 W. North Ave. 773-661-1540. trenchermen.com. Entrees, $15 to $24.

After 14 years of feeding the rich and famous at Charlie Trotter’s, one of the top restaurants in the country until it closed last month, Matthias Merges says, “I wanted to do something that would shake me up” and “look at hospitality in a different way.”

Yusho is the chef’s fresh start. Launched last November in the working-class neighborhood of Avondale, the Japanese-inspired restaurant shows anime and monster movies on a back wall and welcomes patrons dressed in shorts as well as suits. Some diners congregate at the long wooden counter up front that looks into the open kitchen; others head to the rear, with its endless ceiling and enough different lights to stock a showroom. It turns out that there are two talents in the family; design credit goes to the chef’s wife, architect Rachel Crowl.

A menu category called “Birds” includes chicken wings that are anything but ordinary. Yusho’s version replaces the bone with a paste of leg meat and chilies, and the snack comes with bonito salt and a wedge of lime. Ribbons of braised, grilled beef tongue set on crispy kale get a dusting of finely shaved horseradish. Lightly fried maitake mushrooms share their bowl with yellow cubes of dashi gelee and a soft-cooked egg, which diners are coached to mix with the sake and rice wine vinegar in the cup’s bottom for a more electrifying experience.

If forced to choose one dish, though, I’d profess my affection for house-made steamed buns stuffed with tender pork shoulder, zesty kimchi, pungent cilantro and crunchy peanuts. The single-page menu is augmented by a long list of daily specials that might run to ramen with pig’s tail.

Merges abandoned triple-digit tasting menus when he bade farewell to Charlie Trotter’s, but not attention to detail or foie gras, which accounts for one of the few double-digit dishes at his grazer’s paradise. Nothing wrong with an AmEx check holder, but Yusho’s alternative — a sardine tin — makes payment more fun.

2853 N. Kedzie Ave. 773-904-8558. yusho-chicago.com. Small plates, $3.25 to $18.

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