First Bite: Big Jones

Michael Nagrant / 04.09.08

Andersonville is hot. The strip of Clark north of Lawrence and its surrounding blocks are home to Chicago’s best beer bar, Hopleaf, Chicago’s best pastry shop, Pasticceria Natalina, and of course its most beloved if not quite best cinnamon roll at Ann Sather. In the last few months the strip has also seen the birth of La Cocina de Frida, Great Lake pizza, and now Big Jones, a spot for coastal southern cooking out to prove that the south is haute.

The Big Jones space is replete with velvet draperies, dark wood farmhouse style chairs, and warm glowing sconces mounted against rattan wall inlays straight out of Bombay and Company. If you avert your eyes from the gray Chicago drizzle framed by the restaurant’s large picture windows, you could easily be relaxing in a Bayou country club.

The waitstaff is just as warm and inviting as the decor, which is always a surprise on the opening night of a restaurant.

There’s real attention to detail all around. As Cinnamon Cooper of Gaper’s Block noted, the Big Jones website features a ton of cleanly laid out information. Most restaurant websites these days feature long loading worthless flash based intros. There’s none of that design ego here.

The wine list is full of food friendly Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Malbec, and Gigondas, and is smart and focused. Likewise the cocktail list is built on classics like the Sazerac and the Gin Fizz made with homemade juices and cocktail bitters.

Really the only thing that’s confused right now is the food. There’s a ton of promise.

Crawfish and boudin croquettes drizzled with cayenne mayo inspire me to call for a ban on tired crabcakes.

A spicy alligator jalapeno sausage roll topped with fried pickles would be among the best sandwiches at Hot Doug’s.

Likewise sorghum glazed chicken breast was so moist, I was sure it was cooked sous-vide. The kitchen assured me it was pan sautéed and oven roasted. That being the case, the skin should have been much crispier. The accompanying grits were the creamiest most soul satisfying I’ve ever had in Chicago, and the garlicky greens which were half crunchy/half wilted were a thoughtful contrast to the soggy totally wilted greens that show up most other places.

On the other hand, the Oysters Enchantee baked with wild mushrooms, house made tasso, celery, brandy, and cream, a bayou riff on Oysters Rockefeller, were great in theory. But the oysters were an ammoniac perfumed mess. Not just one of the oysters either, but all of them. Not tasting your seafood to see if it has gone bad is totally sloppy on opening night or any night.

Likewise the fried green tomato blt was topped with hefty smoky bacon slabs, but the tomatoes were unseasoned, and the sandwich was a gloppy mess. If you make homemade mac and cheese at a restaurant, it better surpass Kraft. The crumb crust on Big Jones version had sucked up all the moisture and left a dry mass of noodles underneath. Blue box would have been better.

Prices are totally fair with most entrees under $20 and appetizers clocking in at $7-10. If the Big Jones team can get the kitchen in sync, this will be a great spot. As it stands now though, it’s already much better than local southern fave Wishbone and the Walt Disney like national franchise ready culinary theme park that is Heaven on Seven. On the other hand, while the wait will be long and the décor nowhere near as comfortable, I’d still rather spend my money at Lagniappe (1525 W. 79th St.) on the down home southern Cajun soul food that chef Mary Madison kicks out of her kitchen.

Big Jones is located at 5347 N. Clark St., 773-275-5725