The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

Revisiting: French Classics And An Esoteric Brunch At Trenchermen

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Jan 30, 2015 4:20PM

Coffee Cake: Cream Cheese, Cranberry Brown Butter (photo by Melissa McEwen)

When Pat and Mike Sheerin opened Trenchermen (2039 W. North Ave.) in 2012 it garnered a lot of buzz, which has unfortunately quieted down despite the fact that it’s better than it has ever been. While pickle tots remain, much has changed since then, including the departure of Mike Sheerin and the arrival of many new exciting chefs like sous chef Cody Cheetham and pastry chef Rebecca LaMalfa of Top Chef Season 12 fame.

We’ve been dropping by a lot lately, mainly for two of their offerings that showcase what’s so interesting about Trenchermen these days: their Monday night “staff meal” and surprisingly, their brunch.

There are many things to call brunch, but innovative is rarely one of them. Except at Trenchermen, where they’ve managed to put together an odd and delicious menu you can’t find anywhere else.

Even better, the dimly lit and quiet atmosphere is the kind of place where anyone can enjoy brunch with a newspaper and a cup of coffee rather than having to round up friends.

The most important thing to get is the pastries: gems in both sweet and savory forms. A croissant breaks into buttery flecks amidst melted ham and cheese. A streusel is layered with bright cranberry, cream cheese and covered with floury orbs coated in brown butter.

Then there are absurdly rich burgers and sandwiches. Their rightfully respected double burger sandwiched between a sesame bun. The unapologetically quirky breakfast sandwich attributed to former sous chef Kyle McElhinney that seems like something a pregnant woman might crave: swiss cheese, eggs, tender fatty pork shoulder, caraway sauerkraut and a jolting mustard aioli with a side of potato chips.

Sprouted lentils and tofu from the brunch menu (photo by Melissa McEwen(
And for those who don’t want a wake up bath of butter and cheese, there is usually something that’s restrained, but unlike many “healthy” dishes I see on menus doesn’t taste like it was made for sunny California. The center of these dishes is toasted whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat or oatmeal. Pat Sheerin says they like to cook their grains like risotto in porcini mushroom broth, a painstaking process that's undeniable worth it for the smooth creamy texture it imparts. Then they layer on flavors like chewy cinnamon dusted fried tofu, fermented black bean, silky roasted eggplant, smoked almonds, fresh and slightly bitter sprouted lentils and a caramel made by cooking onions down.

If you are getting coffee you might as well get the pourover from the month’s featured roaster, which rotates every month through a hand-picked selection of some great roasteries both local and national. This month is Metropolis with cranberry coffee cake. Each pairing is carefully chosen from six to nine samples the staff tastes as a group. Sheerin says they like to pick the ones that are slightly esoteric and that work great in the pourover. The pourover comes with a perfectly paired pastry.

Coffee-cured bacon (Photo by Melissa McEwen)

The brunch sides are also worth getting and include coffee-cured bacon that is as good as it sounds and slices of crispy round potatoes dosed with salt and vinegar.

Cauliflower a la grecque, white anchovies, ciabatta (Photo by Melissa McEwen)

Trenchermen’s dinner has also gotten even more interesting, and you can try most of the elements that make this restaurant special on their Monday Night Industry Menu, which offers three courses for $20.

Cassoulet of duck confit, white beans and garlic sausage. Seared tuna nicoise, tomato confit, poached egg, greens, potato & olive. (Photo by Melissa McEwen)

The menu is heavy on French classics, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than Next Bistro. Sheerin says he wanted the cooks at Trenchermen to practice these classic French dishes because “the younger generation of cooks often have no base knowledge on what is delicious - what cuisines are. Fusion is delicious, but they have no experience with the roots of modern cooking. A lot of the important textures are easier to explain with French cooking.”

French onion soup, beef broth, gruyere cheese, pumpernickel (photo by Melissa McEwen)

In their soupe à l'oignon they employ the services of hearty brown bread to sop up a meaty beef broth. And then top that all with melted gruyere. A cassoulet is a treasure hunt of tender duck confit, garlicy white beans and fatty sausage. I cut the fat of my meal with two classic French salads that were well-balanced with vegetables, lemon and sea salt: Cauliflower A La Grecque and Tuna Nicoise.

Buckwheat goat cheese fritters, beets, mustard vinaigrette (Photo by Melissa McEwen)

The Monday night menus also include the savory toasted whole grains and pastries that make brunch a draw.

Their drink menu has some odd gems like Bitterman’s new Salmiakki Dala, a mashup of the already medicinal fernet with Nordic-style black liquorice. It’s not as bad as it sounds— in fact it’s awesome and a good introduction to salmiakki for people who are afraid of it. You’ll forget it tastes like the waters of Hell as you are barraged with a veritable swamplands worth of bitter plants.

Basque cake, candied kumquats (photo by Melissa McEwen)

For the meek they have a respectable draft beer lineup and delicious cocktails. For brunch you’ll want the Wake & Bake, made with cold brew coffee, coffee liqueur and Death’s Door’s pastry-like Kringle spirit.

Revisiting highlights restaurants that have been open for longer than a year.