Why’s Russell Crowe wearing a chef’s coat and standing in the lobby at Goose Island Clybourn? Maybe craft brewing has finally reached the tipping point and he’s studying up for a role in a beer version of “Sideways.” I can see it now, Crowe bellied up to some tavern next to his sidekick, maybe Steve Zahn, bellowing, “I am NOT drinking any fucking IPA.”
Or, better yet, I thought, maybe Crowe’s studying up on Goose brewer/owner Greg Hall to portray him on some future biopic about the craft-brewing revolution. But, just as I started imagining Crowe, as Hall, locked in Jedi-like combat with the sudsy showman Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head brewery, I realized the Crowe lookalike is actually John Manion, former head chef of the old Wicker Park fave, Mas. But, damn, with his slicked-back tresses, sharply coiffed beard and brooding eyes he sure looks like a dead ringer for Ben Wade in “3:10 to Yuma.”
It’s an appropriate comparison, not only because of his looks, but because after Mas closed, Manion became a gunslinger for hire, cooking up menus as a consultant for Old Oak Tap and Rockstar Dogs. But as of January, faced with the pork and beer salvo fired by the Publican and the mussels monopoly at Hopleaf, Hall hired Manion to be the executive chef of Goose Island and to revamp its classic, but tired menu.
Manion didn’t just revise, he went whole hog. Literally. The new menu features at least seven pork-laden dishes, not to mention another whole half page of charcuterie made from the stuff. Not just any swine either, mind you. Because of a perfect porcine circle whereby local farms Swan Creek and Slagel (the folks Manion buys his pigs from) get spent grain from the brewery, these porkers are fed Goose Island barley and wheat.
And the pork’s put to great use, maybe best on a grilled ham and cheese topped with a runny fried egg on pretzel bread kicked up with the sharp tang of pickled ramps, aka, spring onions. Really, the only time the stuff is slightly disappointing is when a pork slider, an otherwise exciting combo of fiery sriracha sauce, crispy slaw and a grilled pork, is a bit overcooked and dry. My second slider though is juicier than Major League Baseball in the late nineties.
The thing is, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, I’m getting bored of pork. As long as it’s raised and/or cured right, it is inherently tasty, and the more of it I see on a menu, the more I’m likely to suspect the skill of a chef. A better measure of a cook is being able to take tofuesque-like proteins like, say, chicken, and transform them into drool-worthy creations. And by that measure, Manion is a serious alchemist. His roast Gunthorp Farm organic chicken is moister than a Turkish bath house and because of some smart scoring of the flesh has cracklin’ skin.
Maybe even more impressive is his fish taco. Manion’s taken shards of tilapia, the tofu of the sea, tossed them with beer batter, fried ‘em and spiced them with fiery chipotle mayo and bright pico de gallo and tucked them in a warm tortilla. It’s the best fish taco I’ve had east of Los Angeles. Consider that Manion’s also rockin’ a pretty good taco al pastor, the great thing about drinking at Goose these days is you no longer have to make that separate run to La Pasadita.
Which is good, because you’re gonna need some time to sample old favorites and new session brews from Goose Island’s resident beer chef, Wil Turner. A pint of Willow Street White Ale, kissed with citrus and a touch of clean sweet wheat is, even more than 312 or the famous Goose Kolsch, a perfect encapsulation of summer. Turner’s cask-conditioned Dublin Stout features captivating coffee notes and a slight sour finish that’ll have you wanting to skip your Starbucks run and wishing Goose was open for breakfast.
That’s not to say everything’s perfect. Goose Island Clybourn is big. They hand out chain-restaurant-worthy vibrating light-up pagers when there’s a wait. While the quality of eats are very high, and easily as good at, say, Hopleaf, the fare here tends to hit you over the head in a deep-fried-Twinkie-full-on-gluttony, gilding-the-lily kind of way. As hedonistic as they pretend to be, there’s still a bit of restraint at a comparable place like Publican. They’re putting out a ton of food at Goose, and quality control suffers a bit. A burger was cooked medium, and not medium-rare. The pork slider mentioned above was dry and the potatoes undergirding the roast chicken were under-salted. Then again, the service at Goose Island was warmer and seemed more genuine and knowledgeable than then the table-turning show at the Publican. Either way, Goose and Manion win a lot more battles than they lose, and unless you happen to be Russell Crowe as Maximus in “Gladiator,” you can’t really expect to win every battle anyway.
Goose Island, 1800 North Clybourn, (312)915-0071
This article first appeared in Newcity in a slightly different form.