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Wood-roasted monkfish with chanterelles  

Building Blocks

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | December 5, 2013

There are lots of surprises to be found at Dusek’s Board & Beer, beyond the fact that it’s located in Pilsen. I mean, who could’ve predicted an area known for its authentic taquerias would become the home of one of this year’s buzziest restaurant openings? Sure, the acclaimed Nightwood isn’t far away, but since opening in mid-2009, it hasn’t had much competition—until now.

The next surprise comes with Dusek’s building itself. Originally built in 1892 by John Dusek as a social and political center for the area’s then Bohemian community, Thalia Hall, which houses multiple businesses, was modeled after the old Opera House in Prague, hence its beautifully detailed masonry.

The three-story building’s potential wasn’t lost on its new owners, Longman & Eagle’s Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden, who are also behind charming basement lounge Punch House and a performance space on the second floor slated to open soon. For the extensive renovation work, the two didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “We’re dealing with a space that has beautiful bones,” says Finkelman. “It was important for us to work with and honor the history of the place that’s been given to us.”

That means inside Dusek’s, you’ll find the brass chandeliers from its original days as a tavern. Exposed brick walls, a pressed tin ceiling and plenty of thrift-shop knickknacks add to the vintage charm. Cushy cream-colored booths located in the back room, along with a wood-burning oven, and a long banquette in the front area, which also includes a communal table and a marble-topped bar—both ideal for solo dining—give it a more modern edge.

So how do you best honor a 120-year-old building foodwise? If you’re the powers that be at Dusek’s, including Jared Wentworth, also the chef at Michelin-starred Longman, it starts with a shared passion. “The menu came about from our love for beer,” says Wentworth, who also works in his New England roots here and there. With an interesting selection of 24 beers on tap chosen by Beverage Director Will Duncan (yes, another Longman-er), Wentworth has plenty of muses to work with.

Divided into four sections—Greens and Grains, By Sea, Oysters, and By Land and Air—the menu at Dusek’s is a breeze to navigate, a welcome relief with many restaurants these days overcomplicating what used to be a simple process. But just because the menu doesn’t require a GPS, doesn’t mean it’s easy to decide what to order. There are a lot of tasty sounding dishes here. And be warned: Like its neighbor Nightwood, Dusek’s changes its menu often.

If the crispy pig tails are available, get ’em. Wentworth is no stranger to doing wonderful things with odd bits of meat, and his version of this trendy ingredient is fun and delicious. Confited and breaded before a dip in the deep fryer, the log of crunchy goodness—a pulled pork egg roll is how one of my dining companions described it—comes topped with a slow-cooked egg, bacon lardons and a fat-cutting frisee salad.

Or maybe you’d rather start with something lighter? A bowl of warm broccolini tricked out with toasted pine nuts, golden raisins and pickled radish is a great alternative to a cold salad.

Vegetarians also feel the love in the Moroccan-spiced vegetable tagine, an exotic and hearty mix of Israeli couscous, dried fruit and tangy bits of spiced feta. Added bonus: Like Wentworth’s terrific lentil and cauliflower dish at Longman, this one’s staying put, we’re told.

Wentworth does great things with seafood, too, including the wood-roasted monkfish. Served on the bone, the smoke-kissed fish sits in creamy corn chowder sauce. You’re going to want to ask for bread—yes, this is a thing now—to soak it all up. I also like what Wentworth does with mackerel, pairing its strong flavors with pieces of acidic pink grapefruit. But, on my visit, the fish suffered from a bit too much time in the wood-burning oven.

What about meat and chicken options? Dusek’s has those, too, including a skirt steak gussied up with blue-cheese butter and a burger. Here, the Slagel Farm ground beef is topped with bacon marmalade and is served with duck-fat fries (not crispy enough for my taste). I’m looking forward to trying Wentworth’s half chicken next time.

For dessert, we opted for churros—a nod to Dusek’s location, perhaps?—and we were happy we did. Pimentón and roasted chiles gives the dish subtle heat; peanut dust gives it a savory note; and bittersweet chocolate sorbet adds creamy goodness.

Take note: With a menu that taps into a variety of food flavors, sharing might not work for every dish here. But I, for one, kind of miss the experience of having a whole dish to myself. If you do decide to go the tapas route, servers are quick to replace silverware and plates. In fact, the service at Dusek’s was some of the best I’ve experienced lately, a perfect combination of laid-back—I loved that our server did a little dance on one of her numerous visits to our table—and polished. Now that’s a surprise a diner could definitely get used to.

Dusek’s Board & Beer
1227 W. 18th St., 312.526.3851, dusekschicago.com
Open for dinner nightly 5pm-1am, brunch Sat.-Sun. 9am-3pm

Salads and sides, $7-$9, Small and large plates, $10-$22

Field Trip
Finding the knickknacks for Dusek’s and Punch House was a group effort. “It sounds weird to say the words ‘team-building,’ but the whole staff went thrift-store shopping in Michigan,” says Finkelman.

Book It
Talk about cool private spaces! At Dusek’s, its party room, located next to Punch House, is accessible via a staircase as well as—get this—a floor-to-ceiling bookcase in the basement lounge that swivels open.

A One-Two Punch
Like its name suggests, Punch House serves up some terrific punches, which are available by the glass, carafe, bowl and, starting this month, in growlers for takeaway.