Fried chicken. Doughnuts. Taxidermy animal heads. Reclaimed wood. Mason jar candles. By the time our dessert arrived in a jar, I was rolling my eyes, convinced that chef Enoch Simpson simply was checking items off the list of every current food and decor trend atEndgrain, his Instagram-ready restaurant in Roscoe Village.
And while his food looks great popping up in my Instagram feed, what he hasn’t nailed yet is a consistent menu. Decor aside, Simpson is clearly trying to do something different here, but he’s not quite successful yet. Depending on what you order, it’s possible to go to Endgrain and have a fantastic meal. But you’re just as likely to leave shaking your head. What Simpson, (formerly of Girl and the Goat and Nightwood) does well, he does very, very well. And what he doesn’t do well is mostly a problem of underseasoning.
The good news: This man knows his way around baked goods. The biscuits, which have a slightly crunchy edge and perfectly soft, buttery interior, are a revelation. It’s no wonder they pop up throughout the menu, as part of the fried chicken dinner, as a side dish with butter and preserves, doused with sausage gravy and fried eggs, or turned into sandwiches. Then there are the doughnuts, which Simpson first made at Nightwood, and which are only available until 4pm—unless they run out, which they will. The flavors rotate, but the strawberry vanilla, topped with crunchy sugar, rivals any other doughnut in town.
I also couldn’t stop eating the farro eggplant nam sod salad. Traditionally a Thai pork salad, Simpson’s nam sod is a bright, balanced rendition with Thai basil, ginger and lime. Most important, there’s the fried chicken. My friend and I split the fried chicken and lake trout entrees, and after a bite of the completely tasteless fish, I apologized, reached across the table and snatched a chicken thigh off his plate. With my hands.
With four pieces of chicken, a giant biscuit, greens and smoked potatoes, the fried chicken dinner is large enough for two people to share. (Unless you’re greedy or superhungry.) The skin crackles when you cut into it, and the honey and mustard butter breading is sweet and peppery. It’s among the best renditions in Chicago right now.
But for every dish like the fried chicken, there is a dish like the trout, which despite being strewn with sunchokes and a sunflower seed crumble, is entirely one-note. While restraint is usually laudable when it comes to seasoning, I just want Simpson to put more salt on everything. Other dishes, including a grilled rhubarb trifle, layered in a jar with shortbread and crème fraiche, are great in conception, but not very exciting in execution.
The service needs work, too. There were numerous empty seats during dinner and brunch over the Fourth of July weekend, but servers seemed distracted and we had to get up in search of silverware and constantly request beverage refills.
When Endgrain has more time to work out the seasoning issues, develop a bar program (it’s currently BYOB, but our server said a liquor license is expected “soon”) and refine service, it’s going to stop feeling like a work in progress. Until then, stick with the doughnuts and the fried chicken—and don't forget to Instagram.