Chicagoans have had enough of winter. Even though March has hit it’s hardly been the weather to stroll through the park or ride your bike. In fact, the past week was one to throw on a scarf, turn up your collar, and find a cozy place for a glass of wine. So last Wednesday when one friend had to cancel dinner plans but another called with an invitation to go to Rootstock, I was asking “what time?” before my boots were zipped.
Rootstock opened over a year ago by three ambitious partners, all former employees of Webster Wine Bar. Their small wine bar in Humboldt Park has a simple but sophisticated sensibility of neutral tones with a mix of small tables and big, dark wood communal ones combined with all kinds of chairs. The walls are absent glaring TV monitors and instead feature works by local artists that change periodically. And I love the clever touches like placing glowing votives atop jars filled with corks in the front windows.
But, of course, it’s the youthful trio’s savvy wine list, more than 30 kinds of beer, and impressive menu that is Rootstock’s biggest draw. They are also devoted to using seasonal, local produce, and hormone-free meats. After the departure of Rootstock’s first chef, the quality and creativity of what comes out of the kitchen hasn’t missed a beat. Executive chef Duncan Biddulph does an excellent job of offering up small plates with big flavors. He delivers bar plates the likes of whitefish brandade with chili and olive oil and a gussied up version of chicken wings from Gunthorp Farm, smoked and fried, with ham and celeriac remoulade. My friend and I had the fabulous hedgehog mushroom tart with fresh ricotta, dandelion greens, leek ash, all topped with a poached quail egg, pictured at the top of this post. We enjoyed a refreshing Spanish cava with it.
“Crusts,” or flatbreads, are a popular starter, of which there are usually three and change regularly. With both of us craving greens, we selected a crust heaped with broccoli raab roasted with a creamy white bean purée, lemon, parmesan, and fresh oregano. This is one we would order again. There is also an impressive charcuterie and cheese menu from which you can select exactly what and as little or much as you like.
Those who want to go beyond small plates will be sated with the “More Plates” selections. My friend opted for the ultra-tender braised pork shoulder atop grits, accompanied by a skillful mix of collard greens, pickled celery, and smoked sour cream that will have you finishing every last bite. The organic burger I ordered would have been good on its own it was so tender—and well ensconced in a perfectly grilled brioche bun—but the bacon-scallion aioli, red onion, and white melted cheddar took it over the top. A dark, Spanish red paired well with it. Perhaps next time one of us will try the whitefish with olive oil-poached fingerlings, grilled leeks, bacon, and Meyer lemon—if it’s still on the menu.
I love wine bars, and Rootstock is one of them. Proprietors make thoughtful wine and beer selections (and other liquors) and chefs get to spin their creativity with whatever the season and markets have to offer. It’s hard not to spend an enjoyable evening and leave feeling satisfied but not overstuffed. I only wish that Rootstock were around the corner from me. One last note about Rootstock: for an easier time of getting a seat, come before 9:00 pm, around when the bar gets pretty full since this hip, casual place fills a much-needed void in the neighborhood.
Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar
954 North California Avenue
Open six days a week from 5:00pm – 2:00am
Saturday until 3:00am
Kitchen open until 1:00am