There are young people’s restaurants and there are old people’s restaurants. Old people’s hangouts usually involve lots of glinting service pieces and phlegmatic staff (see Everest). A young person’s spot is marked by ambitious food and undercut by everything else. A hallmark of such restaurants includes indifferent waiters who drive fixed-gear bikes bearing bumper stickers that might say “I’d rather be skateboarding.” By that standard, MorSo, a new seasonal American spot in Lincoln Park, is decidedly a young person’s restaurant.
Dishrags stand in for linens and milk jugs for wine carafes. The servers are tattooed, often waifish men or roller derby team-worthy women. The dining room feels like a first post-college apartment, a mix of thrift store junkets and CB2 design.
MorSo honors the Crate and Barrel tradition with a bunch of big, blocky, dark walnut-trimmed mirrors that clash with the honeyed wood banquettes below. The bench seating, lined with more swanky throw pillows than a Martha Stewart magazine centerfold, is not anchored to the wall. Each time I move forward, I whiplash the woman sitting next to me. And, though nothing at MorSo likely came from a thrift store, the chipped front bench is more pop-up underground dinner than Lincoln Park finery.
The upstairs lounge, with its marble fireplace mantle, inky black walls and white wainscoted bar, is more of a sexy salon. It’s also where bartender Matthew “Choo” Lipsky mixes up his “Panacea” cocktail — a heady brew of scotch, ginger, star anise, black tea and citrus, and one of the best things I’ve drunk all year. Given a choice, this is where you should hang — unless you’re a staunch PETA member and might object to the buck’s head mounted over the fireplace.
You also would likely avoid the antelope tonnato. That’s a shame, because the thin, ruddy slices of antelope dotted with spice and fat remind me of a terrific Italian soppressata. Swooshed with velvety tuna-infused mayo, the meat’s richness is tempered by the acid of plump, juicy caper berries and bitter, crisp dandelion greens.
It would be chef/owner Matt Maroni’s best plate if not for his duck liver parfait and scallops. “Parfait” is a word pregnant with expectation. And at first it is disappointing that Maroni does not serve his in a tapered cup accompanied by a red plastic spoon. But, once I dip into the creamy mousse, steal a bit of the buttery brioche underneath, and the radish and sharp ginger garnish tickle my tongue, I forgive the liberty.
The scallops, which share a plate with cloud-like gnocchi, are nested in a relish of piquant padron peppers and sweet corn tasting like it was freshly picked from the stalk. Candied pecans add crunch and puffs of cinnamon and cayenne.
These three dishes, coupled with a stellar bread service (warm house-baked Parker House rolls, raisin crisp and cornbread served with honey truffle butter) represent the young ambition of which I speak. You could build a successful experimental Thai/French restaurant on the ginger and radish-studded parfait alone.
With that ambition also comes a posse of line cooks in low-slung ball caps fueled on adrenaline trying to keep up. Maroni’s ideas are grand, but his crew generally can’t execute them.
A crab cake slathered in creamy leek and chard-garnished “scallop” sauce encrusted with fried oysters and bacon is the love child of egg foo young and a drunken Emeril Lagasse fantasy. It is also heart-threateningly oversalted. Sweetbreads, which restaurants often compress to a rubbery texture, are light and tender at MorSo. Unfortunately, the accompanying smoked tomato garnish had a bitter ashlike note that overwhelmed the plate.
At brunch, all bets are off. Avocado frites are fried to a deep-burnt mahogany and bland as Ben Stein. I never ask for salt in a restaurant, and almost didn’t this time, because our server, who looks like a sad, hipster Ken doll, never comes back to our table. Neither salt, nor the flavorless grilled peach garnish, can save things. An egg dripping in poaching liquid sogs up once-crispy trout. Duck biscuits and gravy come with hard-tack bricks mistakenly slathered in lobster hollandaise from another menu item. While I score cheap surf and turf, the salty sea notes of the lobster hollandaise (surf) clash with the gamey quail and duck (turf).
I love the naanwiches from Maroni’s Gaztrowagon. As the founding father of Chicago’s food truck movement, he earns great respect from me. He’s young, but he understands the old man’s game. I love that he serves an amuse bouche and mignardise at MorSo — classy touches.
So it’s hard to reconcile these two sides, except to say that a food truck is a frontier, a thing for the driven pioneer. The permanence of a restaurant, even a young person’s one, requires just a bit more seasoning.
340 W. Armitage; (773) 880-9280; morsochicago.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.