Village Kitchen, the Land of Nostalgia and a Great Sloppy Burger
The three of us had our spoons at the ready the second the dessert plate landed on the table. Smothered with whipped cream, flecked with freeze-dried strawberries, nuts and tiny cubes of pineapple, and flanked by scoops of ice cream, the plate looked a lot like most brownie sundaes. "This is pretty good," admitted one future glutton after a pensive spoonful. Then another spoon descended, cleaving deep into the brownie and liberating a playful wisp of steam. The best brownies carefully tread the texture boundary between cake and fudge, and not only was this brownie a perfect specimen but it was also a massive one. The cadence of our spoon-work picked up.
Maraschino cherries were strewn about, the kind that still vaguely resemble the fruit plucked from a tree, and they exploded with redundant sweetness and a quiet hint of booze. We ate more quickly still, until there was nothing left and our spoons trolled the shallow puddle of melted goo in search of anything solid enough to scoop up. A kid would have indulged the sticky soup that remained, and at least one of us considered the maneuver. I won't say which.
This brownie sundae hails from the same culinary genus as many of the other nostalgia-stuffed items on the menu at Village Kitchen, the latest incarnation of the restaurant nestled next to the movie theater in Highland Park Village. When the restaurant first opened in 2011, Top Chef contestant Tre Wilcox was responsible for dressy plates at what was then called Marquee Grill & Bar. The menu was scaled down before Wilcox left in 2012 and handed the baton to current chef Andre Natera, who was charged with designing a third menu earlier this summer.
The latest menu update was complemented by a modest renovation. Furniture and flooring were updated, and the previous snow-white color scheme was warmed up with orange leather banquettes and gray wood tones.
Weeks later, the smell of freshly sanded wood still lingers in the halls, and the dining room seems well-suited to the new lineup — a refined take on classic dishes many of us remember eating out before we painted our shirts with chocolate sauce. Forget the pretentious cooking of the past; Village Kitchen is now the place to grab a gut-bomb before you watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 next door.
That includes, of course, burgers, and this is a good one. Instead of building upward in an act of burger architecture that often requires a serpentine jaw, Natera builds his burger outward to give it some heft. It's short-statured, quite wide and has a certain floppy characteristic that makes it an enjoyable mess to eat. Slumpy Burger: the next chain restaurant coming to an affluent ZIP code near you.
The patty of house-ground beef is packed loosely and offers a soft and airy consistency, while the grill lends a distinct smoky flavor from a respectable char. Topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and chunks of bacon, all of which seem to swim in mayonnaise flavored with even more bacon, the burger would come with a liability waiver if everyone's hands weren't too greasy to sign one.
It's a bit of a surprise that a burger this great is served with shoestring french fries that are obviously pulled from a freezer bag. They're crunchy enough, but they lack the potato flavor you associate with, you know, fried potatoes. Natera says the freezer spuds are a necessary logistical decision for a taxed kitchen, but they mar every plate they touch.
They come with every sandwich, including an $18 lobster roll, which sadly makes use of processed lobster meat, too. The warm, butter-toasted, side-split bun is a pleasure, but the pre-shelled crustacean doesn't have enough flavor to stand up to mayonnaise that is strongly spiked with tarragon.
The potato chips are house-made and deliver that missing potato flavor. They'd be perfect if they weren't so heavy with oil. Regardless, you'll envision yourself plopped down on the couch with a bag full of these chips-turned-spoons bulldozing through a massive tub of Natera's French onion dip.
And this is the exact sort of eating that inspired much of the menu. Natera asked his cooks what they loved to indulge when they weren't holding a spatula, and he used their favorites as fuel. The chef himself loves roast chicken, so there's one on his menu. Another cook has a soft spot for New England fare, while another is obviously plagued by a troubling burger addiction. By ignoring what they might want to cook as pros and focusing on what they love to eat as civilians, Natera's team has gathered a list of homey favorites that will pull on your culinary heartstrings. The problem is that the list is so long that the execution suffers.
The fumbles are a shame considering how well some of the menu is handled. Petit oysters offered at $4 apiece should make your wallet hand twitch, but they're stunning. The deep-cupped shells are carefully shucked to retain every drop of their oceanic brine, and they taste fresh and clean. You'll be tempted to order 12 at a time.
A flat-iron steak is cooked perfectly and capped in a coin of compound butter that slowly recedes into a glistening sheen. The steak is good enough to almost forgive yet another appearance of those lifeless french fries.
A flatbread topped with brisket and thick disks of mozzarella might sound heavy, but it's balanced with pickled vegetables that brighten things up. The crust is heavily charred — in a good way, just like the outer crust on that Slumpy Burger. The blackened bits add flavor and aroma and demonstrate a kitchen that knows how to properly burn things.
Choose some of these, and wash them down with a milkshake laced with salted caramel, and you might think you've found your perfect casual restaurant. Fish and chips with mushy cod and tepid onion soup will leave you less enamored, as will deviled eggs made from eggs that were boiled into oblivion. Their green, sulphurous yolks may be masked with bacon fat, but tough whites show a kitchen that lacks discipline. Most home cooks have this one mastered.
Still, something about Natera's newest menu has an undeniable pull, and it's certainly the most charming version of the restaurant so far. It's comforting when you see classic favorites served in a dining room that doesn't smell like a chicken-fried steak. It's the sort of place where you'll finish a brownie sundae even when you know you shouldn't.
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