The Wicker Park/Bucktown area has become a veritable hotbed of new restaurants and bars. Most of them are clustered around the massive (and irritating) Five Points intersection of North, Milwaukee, and Damen. Quite a few more are strung out along the Division Street corridor. But if you happen to venture just a bit eastward from the Five Points intersection along North Avenue, you will discover a hidden gem of a restaurant - the Monarch.
When you enter, the 25 foot high ceilings give you a sense of majestic space even though the restaurant is rather small. The Monarch features exposed brick walls, industrial oak floors and an original paneled ceiling benefiting the restaurant and bar’s royal moniker. Subtle heraldic symbols and messages are hidden in the brick walls, can you find them? There is a small but attractive outdoor patio. Since the restaurant does tend to get a bit noisy when crowded, this patio would be a perfect setting on a nice summer evening.
Recently, I was invited to bring a friend and to sample their new menu. Chef Michael DeStefano has done a superb job. Most of the menu items are based on tried and true concepts, but he manages to put his own artistic touch into everything, elevating the food from ordinary to extraordinary. The menu is relatively small, but everything has been chosen carefully and crafted with a deft hand and artistic eye.
Of course, we started our evening with two of the Monarch's quirky cocktails. Each cocktail has a story, and those stories are provided on the reverse of the cocktail menu. I started out with the Place de la Concorde (D'usse VSOP cognac, green chartreuse, Luxardo cherries, egg whites, lemon, Angostura bitters), served in a coupe. Sipping this one makes you feel just a little bit elegant. I felt like I should be in a tuxedo, leaning up against the bar. Still, it was a lovely start to the evening - tart, a bit on the bitter side (which I love), and just enough to relax me and set the mood. The rest of the story on the menu tells a bit of the bloody history of the "Place de la Revolution" and the guillotine. The cocktail connection is this, "Watch your head."
My friend opted for the Czarina Alexandra (Charles de Fere brut, Sobieski Bizon grass vodka) served in a tall glass. This is a supremely light, refreshing, summertime coctail - perfect for patio sipping. According to the menu, the rest of the story is, "Russian rulers drink a lot of champagne." Apparently, so do Chicagoans!
Once we had slaked our thirst, we dove into the menu. For appetizers, we decided to try the inventive Dill Pickle Wings and the Foie Gras Mousse. Chef DeStefano has concocted three types of wings - Buffalo, Kung Pao, and Dill Pickle. Take my advice - if you like pickles at all then you must try these wings. It's rather hard to describe, but they were probably my favorite culinary moment of an evening filled with great food. They are a bit messy, so ask for extra napkins.
The Foie Gras Mousse comes in a small ramekin served with freshly grilled crostini and homemade strawberry jam. The jam was densely flavorful, the crostini perfectly grilled, and the mousse was absolutely delectable. I was a bit reticent about the concept of foie gras mousse, but this changed my mind. It was light (as a mousse should be), but the foie gras flavor was still pronounced. It was a nice change to have foie gras without all the density. While we were enjoying our appetizers, we saw someone order the Blue Crab appetizer, sort of a 'deconstructed' crab Rangoon. Wow! If something can look delectable, that did. On my next visit I will definitely give it a try.
For a second course, we toyed with the idea of ordering the Truffle Fries (which smelled and looked fabulous), but we decided instead to stay a bit on the lighter side and we split the superb Chilled English Pea Soup. This is a "must try" on the summer menu. The soup is prepared using coconut milk and is garnished with coconut and pink peppercorns. The brilliant green color from the fresh peas is a delight to the eye, and the garden fresh flavor is also something to be savored. We shared a bowl, and they were happy to divide it into two smaller bowls for us. Frankly, if I return I am going to have my own full bowl. Forget sharing when something is this tasty!
The available entrees are all based on fresh, seasonal produce. My friend ordered the Pork Blade Steak, served with rainbow Swiss chard and cured lemons. The thick cut of pork was moist and tender and the slightly bitter chard along with the cured lemon gave a nice bitter accompaniment to the light sweetness of the sauce. Although the pork was a trifle on the salty side, overall this was an excellent choice.
My entree was Rainbow Trout, served with roasted tomato, eggplant puree, and farro with a sauce vierge. The trout was perfectly prepared, still moist and flaky but with a nice crust on the outside. The flavor combinations, along with the various textures, made this an intriguing and delightful choice for something that could have been rather ordinary. It was also a bit on the lighter side despite the generous portion size, so I did not leave feeling overstuffed.