Cheese plays a tempting role in the Aesop’s fable “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” so it only stands to reason that a restaurant that takes its name from the tale does so well by dairy: lush feta-style cheese from France, burrata from California that smoothly buddies up with crisp brussels sprouts, bold Cheddar in a bite called Country Mouse.
The location may have played a part as well: City Mouse is in the dapper new Ace Hotel Chicago in a space that for decades was an Italian cheese factory called Anona. Ace has earned a reputation for showcasing standout local chefs at its properties; for its hotel in the West Loop neighborhood, the choice was the team from the restaurant Giant, including one of its chefs, Jason Vincent.
Giant is actually pretty small — it has 44 seats in a Logan Square storefront — whereas City Mouse has more than 250 when its patio is open. But, Mr. Vincent said, the operating principle behind the menus is similar: “Food tastes better when it has something bitter, something sour, something salty, something sweet and something funky and it’s got some texture.”
To make that happen at City Mouse, the Giant crew enlisted the chef Pat Sheerin, formerly of the city’s much-praised Trenchermen and, before that, the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock Center.
Everything’s delicious and every plate’s a party: sea scallops over a green curry are accompanied by butternut squash, kohlrabi and king crab; Chinese broccoli with roasted San Marzano tomatoes (bonus sweetness and crunch comes from broccoli stems that have been peeled, sliced and grilled); spaghetti with a blizzard of bread crumbs, notably tasty bacon from Beeler’s in Iowa, Calabrian chili and Valbreso feta.
Mr. Sheerin’s approach: “Let’s make this vibrant yet have some soul to it at the same time.” It helps that many of the vegetables are grown in the hotel’s garden run by the urban farm Roof Crop.
The Roti Mopho at City Mouse is a salute to a similar dish Mr. Vincent was smitten with at the Southeastern Asian restaurant Mopho in New Orleans: here the flatbread is sided with a savory sesame eggplant relish, chunky tzatziki, fresh dates, a chile salsa and feta in olive oil. The Country Mouse is a shout-out squared: to the uni shooters at Giant and to Chicago’s beloved Garrett Popcorn Shops. To recreate the salty-sweet dynamic of the signature Garrett Mix — caramel and cheese corns, combined — City Mouse turns “gorgeous aged Cheddar” (Mr. Sheerin’s words) and “makes basically Cheez-Whiz out of it” (Mr. Vincent), incorporates a corn purée, adds some caramel discs as a garnish and then “a little pop of salt and caviar” (Mr. Sheerin). That’s a happy hors d’ouevre.
Desserts (by Angela Diaz, who also worked at Trenchermen) can be just as fun: a sesame-chocolate ice cream sandwich, homespun apple pie with apple ice cream with just a touch of tartness. Drinks are creative and full of flavor: the Middle West sports Old Tom gin, Alessio vermouth, Zucca amaro and Chicago’s traditional bolt of bitterness, malort. Beers are from some of the region’s best brewers (3 Floyds, Tribes).
Mr. Vincent gave both Giant and City Mouse their names (the former from Shel Silverstein’s poem “Me and My Giant,” a favorite of his older daughter; the latter from a favorite of his younger daughter). In Aesop’s telling, the rural rodent has a secure life of prosaic peas while metropolitan mouse can dig into sumptuous cheese and honey — but only if a cat and dog won’t pounce (scary).
Mr. Sheerin is a city guy, North Side. So which mouse is his restaurant? He thought on it for a moment.
“The hotel is definitely city mouse overall,” he said, “but we try to provide the comfort of the country mouse.”
Aesop would approve.
City Mouse, 311 North Morgan Street, Chicago. Citymousechicago.com. An average dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $100.
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