Mini-review: County Barbeque
1352 W. Taylor St. 312-929-2528
Rating: !! (out of 4) Give it some time
If you've ever smoked a perfect rack of ribs on your own grill, it's easy to understand how a thousand barbecue joints have been launched. The beauty of a pink smoke ring and juicy shards of freshly pulled meat inspire a confidence that you were born to do this, to bring the gospel of great barbecued meat to the masses. But opening your own barbecue joint is different from being a confident weekend warrior. Producing a toothsome rib with a lacquered crust for hundreds of people on the daily requires remarkable patience and consistency. Far from a cooking dilettante, Michael Kornick is a seasoned chef with quite the pedigree--he owns MK, and with partner David Morton, also runs DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar and Ada Street—and has an incredible command of Chicago's culinary history. When Kornick and Morton announced that they'd be opening their first barbecue restaurant in Little Italy called County, I wondered whether they would have the luck of a one-rib wonder or the heart of a southern pitmaster.
The scene: The building in Little Italy is painted like a peculiar orange, purple, yellow and green tartan (clearly belonging to the long-forgotten barbecue clan of Scotland?). This address used to house the venerable Italian red-sauce joint Gennaro's. Kornick and his partners kept the original Gennaro's bar and the rich, dark wainscoting (Kornick said, "I have this desire to preserve historic things about Chicago. I was chef at the Pump Room. I love old joints."), but they outfitted it with a trophy-mounted deer and antlers and vintage American flags, giving the place a Northwoods man-cabin feel.
The meat: Veal brisket ($12), a cut chosen for its tenderness and flavor, arrived parchment dry. Considering the portion size--three strips of veal, a tiny tangle of cole slaw and a few pickles--this plate was pretty pricey. (When I later asked Kornick about it, he said it should have been a 6- to 7-ounce portion, so my plate may have been an anomaly.) Rib tips ($10), inspired by Kornick's childhood stops at Lem's BBQ with his dad for rib tips before going to Sox games at Comiskey, were meatier than average, but were also dry. The hot link ($4)—spicy and juicy with a nice snappy casing—was the best of the meats I tried.
The sides: Side dishes were much better and represent the great value at County. Fluffy corn pudding (really a cornbread pudding) studded with scallions ($3) wafted a beautiful buttery perfume. Crisp, tangy cornmeal-dusted wheels of fried green tomato ($6) were complimented well by a minty whipped goat cheese dip. The bacon and barbecue parfait ($3), a little shooter stuffed with layers of cloud-like mashed potatoes and tender braised and smoked bits of juicy rib flap meat, was a glorious savory pork sundae—like an American response to shepherd's pie. Collards ($3), made with executive chef Erick Williams' grandmother's recipe, Kornick said, were undersalted and a little tough.
The drinks: The Rye Smile ($9; rye, ginger syrup, lemon juice and a touch of soda) was refreshing and balanced, and after a few sips had me conjuring visions of sitting in a lounge chair poolside. The sidecar ($9; cognac, triple sec and lemon juice) burst with citrus, had a honey-like finish and was a spot-on execution of the classic cocktail.
The service: County's bar takes up a large portion of the dining room and there's a good chance you'll end up sitting at it. Bartenders are rarely known for their food knowledge, but mine was tirelessly enthusiastic and never stumped by my questions.
Bottom line: County is a great night out if you want attentive bar service, solid drinks and cheffed-up gourmet sides. But the heart of a barbecue restaurant is its smoked meat, and right now, that's what needs some work.
Michael Nagrant is a RedEye special contributor. Reporters visit restaurants unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink