I haven’t gotten out much in the last year except one place: Maggie’s townhouse. This restaurant has a knack for cooking exactly what I want for dinner (mostly carbohydrates), although redundancy is an issue. It’s pretty exclusive – I’m one of fewer than six customers who have eaten there since last March. I suspect they are doing this to reinforce intrigue. I’m not sure the food will win many awards.
The Townhouse is a narrow, mint green house between huge brick residential buildings on Chicago’s Logan Square and exudes a homely atmosphere: “West Elm meets Wayfair Clearance Section”. Inside, recessed lights cast a yellow glimpse of the reclaimed wood dining table overflowing with a battered MacBook, weekly planner, and boa-constrictor-length ivy that has given up hope of repotting. Piles of laundry unfolded sometimes obscure the seating in the lounge near the entrance, but I enjoy sipping my Negroni on the floor before dinner. The playlist is pleasant enough, though the restaurant relies a bit on the old Alabama Shakes album – which clashes outside with buggy car alarms and the low hum of those built-in lights.
You could generally refer to Townhouse food as Italian. Think Olive Garden is accented with the chef’s indiscriminate creative flashes. Salad starts every meal, whether you ordered it or not, which creates an obligatory, sometimes soul-soothing effect. It’s presented in a huge metal mixing bowl with two tiny forks that we usually have to fish out from under the salad. Basic noodles like toothy bucatini in sometimes jumbled carbonara and spaghetti in butter-roasted tomato sauce satisfy me so much that I don’t mind seeing them on the menu week after week. The house focaccia is particularly pillow-like, crispy and good. Entrée parts, however, border on irresponsibly large ones; I honestly worry about Townhouse’s financial viability because every time the cook pays in food, she yells, “There’s more!” before we even tried anything.
Another staple, mapo tofu, has improved as the chef increased the fat content of turkey to lean beef to pork, the oils of which form a reddish slick that blends luxuriously with the soft cubes of tofu. The blunt spring onion garland comes in a single chain, like a construction paper garland. Whimsical!
The cook’s romances with certain ingredients and techniques hit customers like a tidal wave, almost as if she had never thought to use them before that moment. A week it’s cauliflower steak, charred cabbage steak, roasted carrot steak; On the other hand, it’s chilli crunch on the rice porridge, chilli crunch on the fried eggs, chili crunch on the charred, old-assed green beans, the texture of dragon skin.
Cooking meat is a mixed bag. The whole cooked chicken phase has produced mostly juicy, nutritious results. But when a musty pork tenderloin came out of the kitchen late, the cook announced, “It’s damn overcooked,” as she put it on the table. Indeed it was.
That brings me to perhaps the strangest thing about Townhouse: the chef’s disturbing personal investment in guest feedback. A couple of nights ago, my date indicated that she had done a little OTT with the fresh ginger in the curry. “Oh, are you a curry expert all of a sudden?” She spat before slipping into sullen silence for the rest of the night. She is also very offended when we ask for take away containers and hover overhead asking if it’s because we didn’t like the food.
Guests should also beware of Townhouse’s uneven wine pairings. A $ 10.99 Target Cabernet, served with a fiery curry, tastes both metallic and bitter. Another night they had the right wine – a fresh, easy-to-drink Montepulciano that still bears the price label and is served alongside fried broccolini and pillow-shaped ricotta gnudi in a garlic and tomato sauce. The chef told how Ina Garten says to put 20 whole cloves of garlic in the olive oil to start the sauce and wasn’t it the best we had ever tried? Unfortunately, the evening’s triumph weakened as I dug up thin, short hair from both aisles. I suspect they are hairy haired; I’ve never seen a fringed chef wear a hairnet.
Despite the occasional victories, I feel that the monotony of nighttime duty is affecting the townhouse. When a patron asked over a salad of homemade hatch chilies if they should be cooked first, the cook yelled and knocked the fork out of his hand. Then he spent hours in a black hole on the internet reading about botulism. Shortly afterwards, her homemade pizza sent a volcanic flow of mozzarella onto the oven floor, which set off the fire alarm. When the alarm went off and Alabama Shakes continued to sing, the cook waved a tea towel with one hand and sipped wine with the other, muttering something about being underrated.
“Why don’t we just order pizza from somewhere else?” yelled my date as he ran around opening all the windows.
I think we could all use a break from Townhouse.