There is nothing more indicative of the Uncommon Ground experience than its specials list, which sometimes, when the bartenders get ambitious, includes a cocktail. For anybody who suffers from even a mild case of restaurant fatigue, the notion of a cocktail on a specials menu is novel enough to be irresistible, even more so when it’s described as a blend of organic pear-infused vodka, plum wine and sake. But when the drink arrives, it is adequate at best. And the diner is left deflated, scrambling to find the excitement he had at the idea of the cocktail, and not in the cocktail itself.
If there’s a problem with Uncommon, this is it. It’s not the space, which, with its fireplace and gorgeous Art Deco bar, is one of the most likable in Chicago. And it’s not its ideas, because Uncommon has lots of ideas, almost all of them good. It’s the execution. The menu suffers from a decidedly not uncommon problem: The dishes consistently seem much more complex and delicious on paper than they turn out to be in reality. Such is the case with the “Uncommon Cassoulet,” touted as having “Seedling Farms apple cider–glazed Duroc pork belly, duck sausage [and] Nueske peppercorn bacon,” a description that speaks to Uncommon’s commitment to local producers and that sounds delicious enough that only a vegetarian would push it away. But the pork belly was so overcooked that a knife was needed to saw through its overlayer of fat, so carnivores ultimately might be inclined to push it away, too.
To be fair, Uncommon Ground doesn’t make a habit of overcooking its food. But even when the food is executed well, it still seems to falter—the space is so warm, so perfect, so log-cabin chic (being careful not to go too far in any one direction), that the food can’t compete. The prosciutto, artichoke and Asiago pizza with rosemary oil and lemon zest had potential, especially from the looks of its crisp, thin-as-tissue-paper crust. But it tasted mostly of salt with a little bit of artichoke, and at no point hinted at the promised rosemary oil or lemon zest. And as for the duck confit quesadillas, they had the rich savory flavors one would expect, but were overshadowed by an abundance of sweet caramelized onions.
Uncommon does make a good salad, however (the Uncommon Chopped Salad is the one to get). And its meatloaf isn’t bad (though much of the credit goes to the thick, peppery bacon that wraps it). Plus the spot is justifiably well known for its brunch; the Uncommon Breakfast Melt (are you picking up on a theme yet?) is a brilliant amalgam of more of that bacon, a robust cheddar and over-easy eggs on Red Hen’s onion black bread. But if salads, meatloaf and brunch sound like the most boring items on the menu, well, that’s exactly the rub. The best dishes here still take a backseat to the real main attraction: the room.