Drive down the 1700 block of Chicago Avenue at night and you will see a neon light beckoning, the kind of flashy signage reserved for truck-stop massage parlors, adult bookstores, or strip clubs. This particular neon doesn’t flash “live nude girls” or anything like that. It says “Funkenhausen”, which is apparently a made-up word that basically translates to “radio live” in German. I suspect it was chosen because it sounds like “Funky House”, or an excuse to swear (say it three times fast) to English-speaking Americans. With a name like this, you expect to be blasted with a live set from George Clinton once you open the doors to this modern German restaurant.
Instead you’re met with what feels like a Hofbrauhaus outfitted in neo-Brady Bunch accents of gold, teal, and teak wood. You will find a similar color scheme at the Chicago restaurant Tied House. The Brady-aesthetic is hot right now. A little incongruous, but also kinda awesome, the bar has tufted magenta leather stools that look like they were lifted from the Barbie “mafia-wives edition” Playhouse.
The service staff seems to be able to wear whatever they want, at least within a generic Bavarian mode, including après-ski apparel, thick cable-knit sweaters and what not. One server maybe took things a little too far with his WWII-era army staff sergeant coat.
There are also lots of cool cuckoo clocks and various antiquities hanging about. Maybe the best thing is a stuffed boar’s head chillin’ near the kitchen. This is Ernest Hamingway, the restaurant’s mascot. This is a little odd, because the Funkenhausen menu features more pork than a session of congress. As I learn from the website, Ernie loves the “piggy plate”, a selection of porcine offal prepared by chef Mark Steuer. Little Hammy is a full-on cannibal.
Were Mr. Hamingway to grow tired of eating his kind and switch to vegetarianism in protest, he’d be fine. Steuer’s facility with plants is tops. Charred broccolini drips with the acidic tang of buttermilk and finishes with a hazelnut crunch. The bitterness of the broccolini’s char is offset by the sweet juice of plump golden raisins. When I first saw the menu, I made fun of it, suggesting that no one, including my young children, like raisins (you can hear my initial reactions to the menu in my new video series, Food Critics Reading Menus), but it works.
Steuer loves grapes of all kinds, infusing a dish of sunchoke, smoked trout, trout roe, mushroom jam and sunflower seeds with them. This dish, like the broccolini, is bright, sweet, bitter and well-balanced. The sunchokes here however are seriously al dente, as in almost threatening to your dental work, they are so undercooked.
I suspect this is a stylistic choice, a rebellion against overboiled mush served elsewhere, because the ricotta dumplings featured tough carrots and cippolini onion too. Those of you rocking false teeth will not appreciate the technique, although you will be rewarded with silky bits of Riesling-brased rabbit and airy dumpling for your trouble.
The Oysters Hockafeller, save for some chicharron crumble, are pretty gummable. The name is obviously a play on Oysters Rockefeller, the famous dish invented at Antoine’s in New Orleans. I am a little disappointed given how edgy Steuer is keeping things at Funkenhausen that he didn’t go for the obvious name of Oysters Rocafella in honor of Jay Z. However, it turns out that a dish of that name was already invented by the purveyor of $60 bone-in-veal parm (Veal Parmafella? Yo!), NYC-chef Mario Carbone.
The other thing about Rockefeller is that although I have ordered it a hundred times, I assume because the dish is named after a dude who is, inflation-adjusted, one of the wealthiest people to have ever walked the planet, that it must contain bacon. Some chefs feel the same way and have added crispy pork over the years. The original recipe is thought to be a riff on traditional escargot service, featuring only butter, parsley, herbs and bread crumbs, and maybe spinach. No one knows for sure, because Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine, who invented the dish supposedly died with the secret recipe. Some guy named William Poundstone did smuggle some Rockefeller out of Antoine’s during the 1980s and did a Geraldo-style expose and lab analysis and found the current version did not include spinach as some have suspected. Everyone uses the leafy green anyway, including Steuer. Steuer, however, does the namesake right by including shards of braised ham hock, and palate-pleasing pickled chilis that John D would have loved.
The schnitzel is a gigantic fried frisbee of thinly-pounded pork, served with lemon wedges and a custardy gribiche-sauce. I may have folded it in half NYC pizza slice-style and shoved it down my maw near the end.
Service was pretty good. My dude, who was not wearing an army jacket or a toggle sweater like most of his brethren – he wore a conductor’s cap instead- directed me to a glass of Jacquère, an unfamiliar wine. Even though Jacques Pepin deserves his own grape varietal, this is not named after him. The grape does produce a crisp white with melon hints that paired well with the schnitzel.
We had pre-ordered a Black Forest chocolate donut topped with brandied cherries at the start of our meal. Our server asked if we still wanted to see the dessert menu, and we said yes. We planned on adding another plate, but the donut arrived before the menu, and was so dry, we decided not press our luck with additional confections.
Despite dessert, I like Funkenhausen. Everyone who loathes German food for its leaden carb-heavy characteristics will love Steuer’s approach. He lightens and balances and adds a small dose of southern flair (serving bbq-like smoked meats and deploying southern heirloom ingredients including Carolina Gold rice) to reinvent German cuisine.
Funkenhausen is located at 1709 W. Chicago Ave. in Chicago