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October 25, 2012

Hunger Strike | Au Revoir, Oscar Mayer

If Steven McQueen could escape from a German POW camp, if Snake Plissken could escape from a dystopian prison-fortress in New York, if Harold and Kumar could escape from Guantanamo Bay…then I should be able to escape from the West Loop, right? I know I don’t have to go here. No one is holding a spatula to my neck. There are amazing restaurants all throughout Chicago: From the aquarium smokers of the South Side to the white linens of the Gold Coast, Chicagoland was made for you to eat. Yet I find myself at the intersection of Randolph and North Halsted, my smile barely containing the boiling rage of hearing yet another cheery hostess quote a two-hour wait time.

Then again, two hours isn’t quite two years—or however long it will take for a decent restaurant to materialize in Hyde Park. Sure, some kind of gastropub concept from the boys behind Longman and Eagle is slated for early 2013. And yes, the Yusho team is planning on a contemporary noodle shop by 2014. Until then, Au Cheval will have to do.

First impressions aren’t everything. Initially, you may wonder if Au Cheval is even open for business. The wooden and windowless exterior doesn’t immediately register any signs of life. And because of proprietor Brendan Sodikoff’s design aesthetic, the interior lighting is easily outrivaled by the steady glow of diners’ iPhones. But do yourself a favor: Step inside and become one with cool, classy vibe. The long, narrow space holds a mix of tables and booths, but the best seats are at the bar-cum-kitchen, which features one small convection oven, two stoves, three dudes, and six pierced ears. Oh, and a dedicated steamer for fresh, warm hand towels. But more on that later.

The menu’s guiding philosophy is that it’s “not your typical greasy spoon diner,” attested to by the fact that almost a quarter of the dishes feature foie gras in one form or another. Looking for a more subtle take on fatty liver, I tried the foie gras and pork-stuffed cabbage. Imagine a slice of cabbage, foie, and pork layer cake, crisped up on the griddle. Pretty cool in theory, but the liver was indiscernible and the flavors muddled. After a few forkfuls, all the components just kind of separated and sat there getting cold. The dish began to look a lot like my feelings about it, beige and gray.

Luckily there’s more to the menu than endless riffs on foie. House-made pickles are unloaded in dump-truck quantities. Fries are made even more addicting by the addition of Mornay. A plump brat arrives over some mash, bearing gravy gifts. There is even something called “simple” prep of fish. The menu is concise, but its scope is expansive, since it includes dishes like the General Jane’s fried chicken wings that the kitchen was cranking out faster than the Colonel could adjust his bowtie. The accompanying moist towels were for your sticky fingers, but the real sticking point was the $17 price tag. For dessert, the puff-pastry and cream concoction known as mille-feuille was a study in structural engineering. Watching one of the cooks assemble the tower of flour, I thought, “Surely, fine sir, the addition of a subsequent layer would be most unwise.” Alas, my internal dialogue was largely ignored.

But what is a diner without sandwiches? Even if it is the fanciest diner in all the land, Au Cheval’s sandwiches are studies in simplicity. So does that make them complex? Hmm... Consider the cheeseburger, which some call the best in the city: pre-formed, well done patties (two on a single, three on a double. The math is fuzzy); fluffy white bun; cheddar slice; pickles; mayo and other condiments. No big deal. No, it is a big deal. It’s a ballsy move to serve a well-done burger these days, what with custom meat blends and all that razzamatazz. You bite into it and are transported back to your first—or best—fast-food burger experience.

And then there is the fried bologna sandwich. This bologna not only has a first name, but also a Ph.D., and a steady, high-paying job. Years of baloney bologna have conditioned your eyes to skip over it on the menu. But this bologna is taking a stand. When all is said and done, it’s a sausage whose culinary pedigree predates any of the Oscar Mayer crap. You take it, fry it up, slather on some more mayo…eat two and call me in the morning.

Au Cheval is the perfect restaurant for the food pornographer in each of us. The sepia-tinted lighting is the filter, the lens flare is the greasy glint on the food, and the food itself would better serve your arteries if you didn’t consume it. Life imitates Instagram. Yes, Au Cheval is a little heavy-handed when it comes to adding extra fat (I mean flavor) to their food, but the food is supposed to overwhelm your sense of taste. And Au Cheval isn’t doing anything particularly complex with its food. Its success comes in the form of small, subtle changes that yield over-the-top results—for example, the tiny, single-egg skillets that the line cooks regularly use. Sometimes all it takes is a single fried egg for a dish to go from subpar to sublime. ’Cause if you liked it, why not put an egg on it?

Au Chavel is located on 80

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