Serious Eats: Chicago
Bar Eats: Hopleaf, the Johnny Depp of Belgian Pubs
Editor's Note: You should all know Josh from his many sandwich posts (remember the one he stabbed with a knife!?). When he decided to branch out with a column, he wanted to write something that explored his two favorite subjects: beer and food. The result is Bar Eats, which explores the best bars and pubs with food.
I like Johnny Depp. I mean, what's not to like? The guy is incredibly talented, generous, cool. He does what he loves, and he loves what he does. He has perfect hair; he owns a winery. I mean, come on. I don't want to meet him so much as I want to BE him.
This is exactly the way I feel about Hopleaf.
I want to own this place, live and work here. Pick organic arugula in the patio garden and then sip a St. Bernardus by the fireplace. It's just that homey. The exposed brick, Belgian memorabeerlia, and the added elbow room from a massive July expansion make it really hard to leave. Hell, those strong Belgian ales make it tough to even stand. But above all, I want to eat here all the time.
Given that my rather modest acquisition bid of $212 was rejected, though, I will have to settle for frequent visits. Um, twist my arm. Since the expansion, they now serve lunch. But thankfully, they did not mess much with the wonderful Belgian-inspired menu, featuring mussels, frites, and an aioli that offers free self-improvement seminars to other aiolis.
The mussels ($13) are the specialty of the house for a reason. You can order them in white wine or "Belgian Style," with shallots, celery, bay leaf, and thyme and cooked in Wittekerke, a Belgian white ale. The mussels themselves are big, tender, and briny. And the fragrant, perfumey broth is best sopped up with the accompanying bread, but I couldn't help but dive in with a spoon as well.
And then there's those wonderful frites ($5, or included with mussels). Heavy on the salt, perfectly fried, they are thin and crunchy. The only thing that could make them any better is what they are served with, the garlic aioli. This rich, creamy goodness should be the metronome to which all other aiolis keep time. Perfect.
Now delicate is not a word you normally associate with onion rings ($6). How many times have you had a big ring of breading that you take a bite of only to have a little sliver of onion run for its life? These onion rings actually crunch from the inside out. The thinly-sliced onions themselves are crunchy, and the mere smattering of breading lets the heavily-salted onions shine. The spicy mustard aioli is pretty lifeless, especially with all the other big flavors on the table, but you don't need it.
The Macaroni & Stilton Cheese ($6) is appropriately rich and creamy. The noodles are perfectly cooked, and the under-salting allows the funk of the cheese to shine through. The crunchy baked top is a wonderful gateway into this palatial decadence.
The charcuterie ($14), consists of three meats of your choosing, a stack of toasted baguette, whole grain mustard, pickled turnips and a boiled quail egg, and is a meal unto itself. I went with the rabbit rillette, spicy smoked duck breast, and the house-made head cheese.
The standout here was easily the spicy smoked duck breast, which tastes like pastrami that grew webbed feet. Very peppery, rich, and delicious, it pairs beautifully with the turnips and mustard.
The head cheese has more flavor per square centimeter than most anything I've eaten in recent memory. It is almost overwhelmingly rich and unctuous, salty but with a vinegar bite. A little bit goes a long way; it is just really full.
The rabbit rillette was definitely the lowlight. Like a pate that doesn't quite spread, this was like a bicycle with no chain. You could still roll with it, but not in the way it was probably intended. The flavor is rich, slightly gamey, but I just couldn't get past the mushy, unspreadable texture.
Make no mistake, Hopleaf is a tavern (read: no kids of any age), and they have nary a TV to show Johnny Depp movies. This would only distract you from their Belgian beer list, which is unequivocally the best in the city. And the summer patio, under the over-sized umbrellas amid the fresh herb garden, is a great place to work a Sunday crossword while sipping your way through that list.