We expect chefs to focus on haute cuisine. But we also suspect they have to apply their skills to their daily meals, demonstrating — if only to family and friends — that it is possible to turn a late-night turkey sandwich into something wow. At The Smiling Moose, chef Christopher "Lock" Cook, an alumnus of the South Side's Cafe du Jour, brings this knack for making ordinary food extraordinary out into the open.
In every respect but its menu, The Smiling Moose is a bare-bones bar. A meal there has an ambience similar to that of hanging out in a college apartment — if its inhabitants harbored fascinations with such '80s movies as Evil Dead and Back to the Future. (And did we mention that The Smiling Moose is Carson Street's home for Scandinavian death metal? That's some of the eclectic entertainment that can be enjoyed there in the later hours of the evening.)
Cook's approach is to bring creativity, quality preparation and a knack for well-selected ingredients to the burgers, sandwiches and appetizers that dominate a standard bar menu. But we're not talking about dandified pub grub, or even better-than-average fried and cheese-slathered fare designed to soak up shots and beer. The food at The Smiling Moose is, quite simply, some of the best food we've ever eaten between two pieces of bread.
Actually, even that description doesn't do it justice, because The Moose's excellence is not limited to its sandwiches. No ingredient was left unexamined in our appetizers, either. Each appetizer was served alongside a small bed of mixed greens. But rather than treat these small salads as mere garnish, The Moose dresses them perfectly, subtly and freshly.
What's more, the salad served with our grilled-shrimp skewers was different from the one on the plate with corn-and-black-bean fritters. The shrimp skewers were served atop smoked peppers that were extraordinary for their subtle, yet completely effective, smokiness; their almost juicy texture hovered between crisp and softly roasted. The shrimp themselves were even more outstanding, practically popping between our teeth with juicy meatiness. We would happily have eaten them straight off the skewer, but were unable to resist dipping them in the tartly creamy lime-cilantro aioli. Like all the dressings and condiments we tried, it relied on bold flavor, not sugar and fat, to please the palate.
The fritters were fluffy and flavorful within and agreeably crispy outside, with a roasted red-pepper mayo dip that suited them equally well. Sandwiches, meanwhile, were not served with fries — which, at this point, have to really soar to stand out, whether waffled, sweet potato or truffled. Instead, sandwiches came with a surprisingly sophisticated pasta salad, complete with grated Parmesan, peas, scallions and sunflower seeds. If the pasta could have been a touch less chewy, that's a quibble with a side so much more interesting (not to mention nutritious) than fried potatoes.
Arguably, sliders are a bit played out. The Moose, however, presents a compelling argument for keeping them on menus because, when done this well, they provide all sorts of flavor and savor without demanding a great commitment. The sliders' small serving size enabled us to increase our sandwich count without spoiling our appetites for the full-size plates to come.
The pastrami slider was a unique exploration of the Reuben, lightly touching on the original with kraut and cheese toppings, but amping up the flavors with horseradish mayo, pepper jack instead of Swiss, and truly outstanding grilled peppers. We wished only for a bit more horseradish kick. The Chinese five-spice burger passed the crucial slider test with flying colors: The tiny patties themselves were moist and tender, rather than the hardened pucks that make most sliders so disappointing. The spice powder, most often paired with poultry and pork, put an interesting spin on the beef; finely sliced red cabbage provided crunch and sweet chili mayo reinforced the meaty-sweet profile.
Habañero peppers have a reputation for heat that leaves jalapeños in the dust, forcing most kitchens — The Moose's included — to tackle them with subtlety. They're too punishing to simply slice and throw atop a burger, so The Moose offers its burger dressed with habañero aioli, whose creaminess simultaneously tames the pepper's ferocious heat while preserving its faint fruitiness. Chef Cook rounded out the burger with more heat in the form of melted pepper-jack cheese and a hint of sweetness with a grilled cherry pepper. Crisp chick-pea falafel with mixed greens and tomato-cilantro yogurt was satisfying and savory.
Everything we ordered at The Smiling Moose showed evidence of attention to detail rivaling much more upscale establishments. If making sandwiches is an art, The Smiling Moose is a gallery.