For craft cocktail lovers, vodka is like the first high school crush you got to third base with —an important part of your development, but something you're a little embarrassed about and wouldn't do again. The 90's were awash in vodka, filled with Cosmopolitans, Metropolitans, and fruity-stuff-from-the-back-bar-tinis, and while the trend was fun at first, most of us outgrew it. I haven't ordered a vodka cocktail in years, and many great cocktail spots only grudgingly tack them onto the end of their menus. Lokal is looking to change all that with a sophisticated list of vodka drinks and a great selection of vodkas for sipping.
Yes, you read that right—sipping, not shooting. Lokal offers fourteen different vodkas to taste, including some hard-to-find Polish imports. I was pleasantly surprised by Pieprzowa, a pepper vodka that went down so smooth we could've sipped it all night. I have never been closer to ordering a second shot of the same liquor. If you're in the mood for a different sort of spice, try Imbirowka, a ginger flavored vodka that will warm you right up. Vodkas infused with oak, spiced honey and bitter herbs round out the menu. Any of these vodkas can be ordered straight up ($6), on the rocks ($8) or in a martini ($10).
Drinking at Lokal is a pleasant, understated experience. The actual bar is nothing particularly special, and the restaurant is comfortable, if a bit stark. It fits perfectly with its hip Wicker Park surroundings, right down to the bright blue lights illuminating the bathrooms. Drop in for an appetizer and grab a table instead of sitting at the bar, either by the front window to watch the passerby or in the lounge-like back space, with tables and low couches.
The Eastern-European menu matches up with the vodka, offering rich, yet understated dishes that update Russian and Polish cuisine. A beet soup paired with a mushroom pierogi, sour cream and dill ($6) is a great value and a lovely winter pick-me-up, and the Smoky Polish Kielbasa with homemade mustard ($7) pairs well with the spicy cocktails. The cuisine is neither spectacular nor particularly innovative, but the contemporary twists on Polish classics are hearty and well-priced. An entrée of venison loin in a red wine stew with chestnut sauce ($23) will appeal to any meat lover, and seared scallops ($21) are topped with an intriguing combination of tomato jam and peppered pears.
What about the mixed drinks? The Old Square ($11), a blend of potato vodka, riesling, sweet vermouth, and angostura bitters, may be the first "adult" vodka cocktail I have had in a full year. Understated and slightly bitter, the pairing of the wine with the vodka works unexpectedly well. For something sweet yet drinkable, order a Bitter Sweet ($11) made with bitter vodka, peach Nalewka (a Polish fruit liquor with a vodka base) and lemon juice. A combination of ginger-infused vodka, pressed apples and lime juice called an Imbir will definitely wake up your palate, even after a long day of cold office coffee.
The only disappointment Lokal had in store was their "warm winter libations." It's possible that my excitement at seeing an entire list devoted to hot cocktails raised my expectations too high, but their mulled wine drinks tasted, well, like mulled wine drinks. Despite the addition of orange and hazelnuts, the Krakowski was nothing special. We couldn't quite taste the black cardamom in the Rum Ta Ta, though we definitely noticed the rum mixed in with the red wine. This isn't to suggest the warm drinks are bad, only that they are not as impressive as they look on the menu. On the other hand, for only $7, on a snowy night they might be just what you need.
Next time you are in Wicker Park, stop into Lokal for a drink. But bring a designated driver, because after tasting five different vodkas, you might be stumbling out.