The word “gastropub” is, officially speaking, only a few months old. In the culmination of about a decade’s worth of foodie plaudits and hype, the powers that be at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary opted to include the portmanteau (of “gastronomy” and “pub”) in their crop of new selections for 2012. The official definition: “a pub, bar, or tavern that offers meals of high quality.”
In practice, this generally means comfortable, semi-casual spaces with varyingly distinctive décor, a well-stocked drink cellar, and recontextualized plebian fare that hearkens back to the trend’s origins as a sophisticated reinvention of the traditional English pub. This is food for the “everyman”—as long as the “everyman” has a stuffed wallet and a palate partial to white truffle oil and craft beers.
Enter Pl-zeñ: one of Chicago’s newest additions to this perhaps over-conspicuously hip category. The building itself is a bit of a curiosity: there’s a giant octopus painted on its grey façade. My friend and I entered to a Skrillex tune playing loudly over the in-house speakers. Our server asked us if we’d like it turned down. I declined—the music fit, at least. The mood lighting and the décor, featuring graffiti, a mural with barbed wire and a derelict building, and distressed brick, lent a bleak industrial, cyberpunk feel to the space. Yet, somehow, settling in felt easy. A change in music helped: the brostep was apparently an anomaly in a playlist that consisted mostly of mellow “indie” from the likes of Phoenix and MGMT.
The menu was pricy but not inordinately so; can one reasonably expect items like wild boar meatballs ($12), Prince Edward Island mussels ($10), and bison burgers ($15) on the cheap? There were plenty of drinks: mostly draft beers and ales with creative flavorings: ancho chile, chocolate, coriander. And—surprise, surprise—there was plenty of truffle oil: truffle fries with every burger, a beet salad partially dressed with the stuff, and white truffle mac & cheese.
With the building’s façade in mind, I ordered a braised octopus appetizer served with “patatas bravas.” The plate looked a bit messy and our jocular server delivered an apology: “Your octopus tried to run off your plate—I tried to catch it.”
The dish itself was about as passable as the joke. The octopus was yummy enough, but the potatoes tasted somewhat plain despite having been coated, along with the octopus, in an overgenerous amount of sauce. The inclusion of “epazote,” a traditional Mexican spice, seemed like a merely obligatory nod to the surrounding neighborhood.
My friend’s fig salad, though, was delightful. The sweetness of the figs blended splendidly with a faint but mystifying vinaigrette that tasted of garlic with a slightly acidic tint. But the combination of textures made the dish: the softness of the figs played nicely against the cracking of pomegranate seeds and pistachios in every bite.
My entrée, a craft beer braised short rib with butternut squash gnocci was also enjoyable—the meat was quite tender and the gnocci was savory and earthy, the squash presumably being “fresh and local” as per the pub’s tagline.
My friend ordered the “Diabolo,” a monster of a burger. Serrano peppers and fairly thick slices of grilled pineapple and tomato were stacked atop white cheddar, a grass-fed beef, cilantro, and red-onion patty about half the width of one’s fist—all stuffed in an onion bun. Despite having to be deconstructed with a fork and knife, the burger was quite good. The beef was lean but flavorful in tandem with the juices from the pineapple. The truffle fries on the side were essentially perfect—the just-right texture (not too soft, not too crisp) and the novelty of the truffle oil’s mild flavor made them addictive.
We ended our meal with a “Beeramisu,” a tiramisu with Breckinridge Vanilla Porter ale, Grand Mariner brandy liqueur, and shards of dark chocolate. It was soft and, thanks to the tempering of the bitter dark chocolate, prudently sweet with neither the marscapone nor the ladyfingers being too dense. It was so good my friend and I considered getting another, at which point our wallets practically sprouted legs and threatened to leave the building of their own volition.
Pl-zeñ, 1519 W 18th St. 5pm -12am daily. (312) 733-0248. facebook.com/plzenclub