Midway through my breakfast at Dillman’s, as I slathered tangy cream cheese and draped slices of smoked salmon on a sesame bagel, I surveyed the cases filled with leather books, the bar stacked with bagels and sea salt chocolate chip cookies and the golden light streaming through the open door, and I sighed in satisfaction. This is exactly how I want to start each day.
But it doesn’t seem like anyone else does. Seated at the only other occupied table that morning was Brendan Sodikoff, who was working. It was the same situation at dinner, when the huge restaurant was a third full and it felt like we were having a private dinner party in our big red booth.
That morning a woman came in and asked for black and white cookies, which Dillman’s does not sell.
“I’ve been looking all over and I know you’re a Jewish deli…” she said, then left.
Did Dillman’s immediately sink itself by opening as a deli?
The restaurant opened as Dillman’s Deli, and shortly thereafter, Sodikoff received backlash for not having a deli case and dropped “deli” from the name. Part of the problem may be that Dillman’s took over the space formerly occupied by Steve’s Deli, a more traditional deli concept. But did anyone really think that Sodikoff, the same person behind nouveau dinerAu Cheval, was opening a traditional Jewish deli? There are giant, sparkly chandeliers! So Dillman’s doesn’t feel traditional—does that matter when the food is so good?
With the name went some of the Jewish dishes on the opening menu—potato kugel and schmaltz herring are gone. So is the tongue reuben. But there’s still plenty to choose from, most of it great. Like the pickled herring, which are plump and topped with thinly sliced onions, capers and tufts of dill. They come with rye bread and sour cream dotted with chives, and you can assemble it all into a bright and balanced open-faced sandwich. And the smoked whitefish avocado salad, a scoop of smoked whitefish salad cradled in half of an avocado, with a pile of barely dressed lettuce and a wedge of lemon alongside. It’s light, fresh and an ideal starter, given how heavy the main courses can be.
You’d be remiss not to get the corned beef sandwich. The meat is cured in house, then sliced very thinly and stacked into a tower with lacy, fatty edges. The soft rye bread can’t stand up to the pile of meat, so use your fork to pick up the delicate slices. The veal schnitzel, served on a bed of a tangy sauce gribiche and topped with a heap of arugula, is a nice classic, but the surprise hit of the entrée menu was the chicken pot pie, which takes you straight back to childhood with its flaky crust, richly flavored chicken, carrot and pea filling, and mashed potatoes. This is an autumn dish, and one I look forward to returning and eating as the temperatures fall. We ended dinner with delicate cheese blintzes, showered with powdered sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice and a slice of coconut pie, served with a dollop of mocha cream.
But it’s not all great. While the reuben is a more manageable sandwich than the straight corned beef, the sheer amount of meat overwhelms the fillings, so it tastes one-note. The Caesar salad was a solid rendition, but the croutons were swapped out for potato chips, which quickly became unappealingly soggy. Dill potato salad and a bowl of bread and butter pickles were so forgettable I didn’t remember we ordered them until I looked at the receipt.
The drink program was strong across the board—the menu is simple and divided into strong and light drinks; everything is balanced and well-executed. It includes the best rendition of the fernet-and-rye-based Toronto I’ve had in Chicago, a boozy punch served in an icy julep cup, and the Scotch and honey, an almond-laced steamed milk that’s mildly smoky and made me rethink the entire category of after-dinner drinks.
Dillman’s is now a “deli-style American brasserie” with “Old World comfort cooking.” Sodikoff can stop trying to categorize this restaurant. Whatever he calls it, this menu is delicious.