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The Brunch Report: Homegrown Cafe Disappoints

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 1, 2013 6:00PM

My first impressions were a nasty smell and a blood-curdling shriek. No, i wasn't walking into a 1950s mental institution; instead, I was heading into brunch at Lincoln Square's newest restaurant, Homegrown Cafe. After years of serving up French favorites as Chalkboard, chef/owner Gilbert Langlois decided to switch things up and morph the location into a breakfast/brunch cafe. Unfortunately, the result has none of the charm of Chalkboard and some new problems.

Walking in to Homegrown feels pretty much like walking into Chalkboard. The color palate is the same, though some of the decor has been switched up and mason jars and chicken wire are on prominent display. Unfortunately, while the long slightly-dark dining room was charming during a late romantic dinner, in the light of day it's a bit, well, gloomy. The entire bright, airy front part of the restaurant, devoid of tables, had been turned into a kind of unofficial children's play area, with at least 6 young ones running freely and shrieking. "I think they're leaving soon," whispered the host, before leading us to a table on the other side of the room. We didn't ask about the mysterious horrible smell that permeated the entryway; presumably they either had a plumbing problem or a flooded basement.

Whatever; when in Lincoln Square, you deal with children. If the food is amazing, you put in your earplugs and chow down. Unfortunately, nothing at Homegrown made us want to stay. Take, for example, the slow-braised short rib "mcmuffin," served with a fried egg and horseradish cream. Why a restaurant that aspires to a "Homegrown" feeling would want to associate itself with that industrial food staple was confusing enough. Worse, it didn't even have the trashy charm of the sandwich it was named for. The braised short rib was well cooked, but so salty that it was inedible. The horseradish cream tasted like sour cream and did nothing to cut the salt. And that was... it. There were no other flavors or condiments, just salt and fat, sandwiched between an english muffin.

Homegrown has jumped on the pickled vegetable bandwagon, which I wholeheartedly endorse. Unfortunately, someone forgot that there is more to pickling than simply dousing with vinegar. I'd never not finished a pickle plate in my life, a streak that ended that morning at Homegrown.

Things got worse from there. A brunch burrito looked bland (they couldn't have cut it in half and added a garnish or two for my $10?) and tasted like not much at all. A chopped chicken cobb salad was neither chopped nor cobb, instead simply a pile of lettuce, large pieces of bacon, smears of avocado and veggies with huge chunks of dry chicken. The biscuits were delicious, but inexplicably served with...nothing. Not honey, jam, gravy or cream.

The one saving grace, the one thing that has survived from the glory days of Chalkboard, was the fried chicken and waffles. If someone brings you to this restaurant for brunch, stick with that and you'll probably be safe. Unless they burn the waffles.

Hopefully, some of the old magic will return once they've got a few more months under their belts, but as we left, the verdict was unanimous: we missed Chalkboard.

Homegrown is at 4343 N. Lincoln Avenue.