Bar Eats: Big Bites at Small Bar
Picture if you will a large cluster of Sunday brunch hangers-on as the hour rolls past five p.m., loudly defending their latest craft brew selection over the jukebox blasting Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," and you have a snapshot of Small Bar on Division.
A little beer nerd outpost smack in the nucleus of the yupster bubble of Ukrainian Village, Small Bar attracts moustaches the way puddles attract rain. But they are friendly moustaches, knowledgeable beer aficionados/brewers that serve up some tasty brews, including their own collaborative efforts with the likes of Goose Island and Greenbush. And they serve up some small and shared plates to go alongside them.
The smoked farmer's cheese and tomato jam ($9) is a great way to start. The creamy, spreadable cheese is super smoky, and against the mildness of the cheese, the smoke really stands out. It's bold and unexpected, and the tomato jam gives it a nice sweetness with a kick of acid. And the grilled country bread provides the perfect crunchy vessel to load the goods up on.
The cauliflower and beef sausage gratin ($8) was a real highlight. Cheesy, creamy and rich, but not overly heavy. The cauliflower is perfectly al dente, and the pickled banana peppers add some nice acidic balance. A few toasted breadcrumbs on top add crunchiness to the big, full flavors of salt and garlic. The beef sausage is on the sweeter side of the spectrum, and adds a what has always been missing from cauliflower: meat.
The Amish chicken Ballotine ($17) is a good dish, if a little uneven. The chicken is nice and crisp on the outside, oven roasted to tender inside. Lots of lemon permeates the bird, and it is salty and delicious. The uneven part comes with the house-made red wine and garlic sausage that it is wrapped around. On first glance, I thought they had forgotten it, because it is almost the exact color of the chicken. And after tasting it, I thought nearly the same. It is so mild that it's tough to decipher where the chicken ends and the sausage begins, which ultimately begs the question: why bother?
The chicken is served with Johnny cakes and greens. The Johnny cakes are fine, but forgettable, and don't add much to the dish overall. The greens, however, have great texture to them. Rich, fortified with salt and cayenne, these spicy nuggets are how greens should be done.
The cheddar drop biscuits ($6) are just begging to be compared to Red Lobster's Cheddar Bay biscuits (they still have those, right?). These have a nice crust on the bottom, and they are moist and airy inside—wonderful texture for a biscuit. The problem comes in with the flavor, of which there just isn't enough of. Not enough cheddar, not enough salt. In a land of otherwise bold flavors, these just lack oomph. Even the carmelized onion beurre fondue with minced chives, which sounded so right, lacked the flavor wallop I was looking for. Lots of potential here, but this one kind of underachieved.
As the name would indicate, Small Bar is not huge. It's not Matchbox-y small, but it can fill up easily. The sidewalk doubles as a patio in summer. Fairly minimalistic inside, it doesn't have a ton of inherent character. But it certainly attracts some. A third location on Fullerton shut down; the original, with a different menu, is in Logan Square.
Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.