Reputation Beats Reality at Trenchermen in Chicago

Pickle tots with chicken at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Pickle tots with chicken breast bresaola, red onion yogurt and scallions.

Trenchermen was on my To Eat list before I even moved to Chicago. It came highly recommended from several food-obsessed friends and I’d read about it on more than a few food-focused websites, so needless to say, I had high hopes.

Trenchermen, in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, is a little out of the way from downtown (where I live), so it wasn’t until recently that my friends and I trekked to it on a Tuesday night. I immediately understood why the trendy spot had so much traction: it checked off many restaurants requirements… but as the night went on, it fell flat on a few others.

Here’s my report card on Trenchermen in Chicago.

Hot buttered scotch with amaro and brown sugar at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Hot buttered scotch with amaro and brown sugar.

Awesome Interior :: Check!

Long before it was a trendy restaurant, the Trenchermen Building was a Russian bath house. White tiles still remain throughout the restaurant from its 1920s origin. Contrasted with the exposed brick, wood-heavy bar, interesting light fixtures and a wall lined with bottles of wine, the beautiful space speaks volumes about its history and current restaurant.

Awesome Cocktails :: Check

The drink menu may be small, but what it lacks in size it makes up with unique takes on familiar cocktails, like hot buttered scotch with amaro and brown sugar ($12), gin old fashioned with vanilla syrup ($12) and blood orange cobbler with blood orange-lime cordial ($10). Also serving beer and wines by the glass, it covers all the basics, with specific sections for sparkling wine and rosé (so I was sold).

Beef tartare at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Beef tartare hidden under masa.

Awesome Menu :: Almost Check

Short, sweet and creative, Trenchermen’s menu is a mix between upscale bar food (burrata and beef tartare,$12, that was freakishly pink and drowning in an overly mayonnaisey aioli tainted with distracting sunflower seeds) with a few curve balls thrown in (charred tuna, toasted oats and goat cheese gnudi, $20, with tender braised lamb shank in a tomato sauce so bland it could have been canned).

There’s definitely variety, but it was hard to depict a common theme through all the dishes, especially trying to find a linear progression from appetizer to entree. Even mixing them all in small plates fashion felt a little off. But points for creativity.

Pickle tots at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Trenchermen’s most popular dish is the Pickle Tots.

Awesome Food :: Not quite

My friend has a habit of asking the server what his or her favorite menu items are and what the restaurant is best known for or most proud of. It’s a great tactic to get the server to reveal what we should order to fully get a feel for the restaurant.

Our server said Trenchermen is so well known for their pickle tots ($11) that if they ever took them off the menu, people would revolt. The fancy tater tots are wading in a bright pink blob of red onion yogurt that reminded me way too much of pink slime and/or the goo dentists use to mold retainers. When I was able to push that thought out of my mind, the slightly tangy tots were strangely good, even though I didn’t care for the mountain of shaved chicken topping them, either.

Pork ribs with date molasses at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Pork ribs with date molasses, pok pok and turnip lime salad.

Luckily the pork ribs ($15) were deliciously redeeming. Coated in a sticky sweet date molasses and cooked with a flavorful char, they were the most tasty thing we ordered all night. As per the usual with ribs, I wished there was more meat on the bones.

We specifically came for the Trench double burger ($16), which our server said was another fan favorite. The double patties are dripping with aged cheddar and simply decorated with just bread-and-butter pickles (sounds suspiciously familiar, doesn’t it?) on a distractingly intense pretzel-like bun that somehow soaked up any and all grease on the bottom bun, resulting in a soggy bottom and a dry top. As a whole, the burger was strangely tasteless, with only the pickles standing out. At least the crispy potato wedges were satisfying with their spicy fry sauce (although it was too spicy for my friend).

Double burger with bread and butter pickles at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Double burger with bread and butter pickles.

Awesome Service :: No check

You should never, ever have to stop your server from running by your table for the third time in 15 minutes by raising your hand because he won’t even look towards the table, then have him ask what you need despite the fact that everyone’s drinks are empty and you have yet to order entrees even though appetizers were finished 20 minutes ago. Especially when the restaurant is practically empty except for two other tables. And when that is just one of many service hiccups during the night, it really starts to taint the whole ambiance of a restaurant.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Crème Brûlée with raspberry sorbet and crisps at Trenchermen in Chicago.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Crème Brûlée with raspberry sorbet and crisps.

Awesome Dessert :: Check-ish

None of us were really feeling the dessert menu when it arrived, but that could have been because we’d been fighting for our server’s attention the whole evening. Once we eliminated the Pineapple Grit Cake ($9) and Chocolate Date Cake ($9), we ended up ordering the Peanut Butter and Jelly Crème Brûlée ($9). The crème brûlée was cooked to perfection with the caramelized top layer and creamy interior, the raspberry gelato stayed true to its name and the little crisps (that reminded us of childhood cereal) all created the iconic flavors of pb&j, only much re-imagined.

::

It’s unlikely that everything I’ve heard about Trenchermen was an exaggeration. After all, I trust my food friends, even though I know sometimes the restaurant hype is right and other times it’s not. Maybe we hit Trenchermen on an off night — it happens — but in a city with so many good places to eat, I won’t be returning to Trenchermen anytime soon.

Go to Trenchermen for ::  a cocktail-heavy evening with friends when food is the secondary focus. Notes :: Open Monday – Thursday 5pm-midnight, Friday 5pm-1am, Saturday 10am -2pm and 5pm-1am, Sunday 10am-2pm and 5pm – 10:30pm. Reservations are available online.

Trenchermen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Trenchermen

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