What sets Herschman apart from many of his peers is his ability to playfully push the culinary envelope while still making every component of a dish pull its own weight. Consider his new porcini-seared halibut, a sensational confluence of ingredients composed with both artistry and humor. Built around a thick halibut filet settled on a pillow of sweet, almost evaporative corn pudding, in a soupçon of truffle-scented corn broth and surrounded by finger-sized duxelles of earthy, ultrasavory wild mushrooms and rich, unreasonably tender scallop-and-shrimp mousseline "matzo balls," the $27 dish is as much a work of art as it is a damn fine eat. And while Lockkeepers long ago ceased to be all about steaks and chops, check out Herschman's big, bone-in rib steak ($35), powdered with toasted caraway seed, topped with garlicky pesto "mustard," resting on a firm mattress of sweet-tart chopped tomato "ketchup," and served with a tangle of fat Vidalia onion rings, tweaked with Old Bay seasoning. Wow, indeed.
Finger-lickin' good . . . Fried chicken, mashed 'taters, and a tall tumbler of sweetened iced tea: For plenty of diners, that's the very definition of down-home comfort food. But trendy? Hardly, and short of a drive down to Amish country, it's an old-fashioned staple that has pretty much fallen out of culinary favor. (Yes, we know that several local grocery stores offer pretty good fried chicken to go; but we're talkin' sit-down meals here, bubba, not carryout or KFC.) So when we spotted Southern Fried Chicken on the menu at the new Town Fryer (3859 Superior Avenue, 216-426-9235), we were about as happy as a pig in mud.
Trust us: Chef-owner Susie "Slingo" Porter knows her way around a deep fryer. The southern sweetheart with the honeyed drawl first caught our eye about two years ago at a near-East Side hot-dog joint, where we found her turning bourgeois Twinkies and Oreos into batter-dipped, deep-fried ambrosia. Not long afterward, she decided to strike out on her own and found the perfect location in a 134-year-old, two-story brick building on Superior that old-timers will remember as the former Chung Wah Chinese restaurant.
The place had been empty for eight years when Slingo walked in, and whipping the joint into shape took her another one. But now, the venerable building's old brick walls are once again exposed, the wooden floor shines, and the original tin ceiling shelters a diverse group of diners, ranging from white-collar types to guys in feed-store caps and overalls.
With white cotton curtains at the windows, Ray Charles on the jukebox, and a line of ceiling fans distributing the aromas of fried pickles, fried catfish, and fried chicken (not to mention fried sweet potatoes, French fries, and fried macaroni and cheese), a guest could be forgiven for momentarily thinking she had stumbled through a rip in the fabric of time and space into a 1950s Georgia roadhouse. But nosiree, that's just Slingo's southern hospitality working its charms.
It doesn't hurt that the food is bargain-priced, either. For instance, a quarter-pound of the fried chicken (plenty for a lunch or a calorie-conscious dinner), a heap o' bacon-topped mashed potatoes, and that tall iced tea will set you back a mere $6; a big ol' bowl of red beans and rice, served with Slingo's homemade cornbread, is only $6.95; and, if you're really down on your luck, grab an all-beef hot dog for a buck twenty-five.
And, oh yeah, about that fried chicken. Slingo uses only skinless, boneless breast meat, which she marinates in buttermilk and dips into her "special" batter before deep-frying it to an amber glow. Crunchy outside, juicy within, and almost entirely greaseless, it's a guilty pleasure, minus much of the guilt.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of her desserts, which are pure indulgence. Besides the deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos, these include luscious homemade fudge brownies, sweet-tart lemon squares, and made-from-scratch banana pudding. Lordy, lordy.
Slingo and part-time chef Mike DePerro (whose other gig is at Parker's New American Bistro -- go figure) man the fryers from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, and 4 to 11 p.m. Saturday; the bar stays open later.
Loafing around . . . We used to think we hated meatloaf. Then we ate chef Frank Wielgosiek's meatloaf, and we realized we merely hated our mother's meatloaf.
We got our most recent fix of Wielgosiek's savory ground-beef masterpiece when we visited the spiffed-up West Side Market Café, in the southeast corner of the West Side Market (Lorain Avenue and W. 25th Street). The roving Wielgosiek, whose previous employers have included the old Hi & Dry, as well as Lake Effect, Capsule, and the Juniper Grille, took over the café kitchen about six weeks ago; his new menu, full of his signature "comfort food with a twist," debuted September 6.
Joining Wielgosiek as GM is Mark Chase, fellow Lake Effect vet. Chase has made sure the formerly gloomy interior sparkles and that service is up to snuff. Check it out for yourself for breakfast or lunch, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Wednesday and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Dinner service should begin in November.