The Dawson has everything a restaurant needs to become an instant hot spot: big-name owners like Billy Lawless, an executive chef who hails from Next; a bar director who earned a national reputation for her work at Nightwood and The Charleston; and a hip West Town location that's far enough outside of downtown to be cool and close enough to still provide a view of the skyline.
Sure enough, on a recent weekend night, The Dawson was bursting at the seams and commanding an hour-long wait for a table on the spacious patio ( worth the wait for its glimpse of the skyline and massive wood-burning fireplace ). As for the food, I get what the culinary minds at The Dawson are trying to achieve. They want to create food that breaks the rules, that refuses to be easily categorized, that impresses and sometimes confuses diners while leaving them delighted by the use of high-quality ingredients and innovative spins on classic comfort food. And to that, I say they are almost therelike so close you can taste it, but it's not quite a bull's-eye.
The Chicago Avenue space, which originally housed a fireplace mantle company, is visually stunning. The striking entry features modern oversized chandeliers, high ceilings, two walls of windows and a grand industrial-looking staircase. The dining room juxtaposes warm wood with distressed white brick walls. Orbs mounted to the ceiling and simple pillar candles cast a warm glow. The space looks kind of like a Pottery Barn, but with an edge and really loud music.
The menu is broken into first-, second- and third-course offerings. But, unlike most restaurants these days, the dishes at The Dawson aren't small plates. In fact, if you order all three courses, you'll be pretty darn full and probably won't have room for dessert. The pork tacos are an interesting and shareable starter. Imagine a crunchy taco from Taco Bell, but with infinitely higher-quality ingredients. The tacos are made with crispy corn tortillas and stuffed with lots of shredded pork and topped with a "salad" of crisp iceberg lettuce tossed with tangy cilantro lime vinaigrette. The taco is also drizzled with a bit of crema, which is a good thing because the pork is on the spicy side and needs something to cool it down.
A nice stiff cocktail will also do the trick to wash down the spicy pork, and there are plenty to be had at The Dawson. They don't come cheap ( $11 for smallish pours ), but the cocktails are superb. My favorite cocktail is the "Liquid Swords," a lovely mixture of sake, lemon, orange bitters and a spicy French aperitif served in a champagne coupe. It's subtly laced with Chai green tea syrup and topped with fizzy Prosecco. Also delicious is the "Travelling Mercies," which is served neat in a tumbler. It looks like you're drinking straight bourbon, but actually it's a drinkable chilled concoction of rum, angostura and orange oil that's ever-so-slightly sweetened with sherry-brown sugar syrup and maraschino cherry liqueur. Beer drinkers will have a hard time choosing from among the many food-friendly craft selections. The Dawson's novel version of the snakebite combines Guinness with cherry lambic instead of the traditional cider, and the result is frothy and tart.
I really enjoyed the chowder. The creamy base is full of lots of cod, fried clams, tender chunks of potato and savory bits of bacon. It's one of the better chowders I've tasted. The menu promises a lobster roll "crouton," which intrigued me. However, crouton is a bit of a misnomer. It's actually a big hunk soft, slightly sweet bread that is reminiscent of a hot dog bun. It's good bread, but there's no lobster involved.
Less impressive was the burrata tartine. The bread that provided the base for the tartine was more charred than toasted and it was spread with precious little burrata. The bread is topped with a slaw of fried Brussels spouts and bacon tossed in apple vinegar. The flavors all work well together, and if the bread weren't nearly burned and the kitchen was more generous with the burrata, this could be a memorable appetizer. As it stands, I wouldn't order it again.
Like the starters and salads, the entrees are all over the board, ranging from seared scallops to ravioli with mushroom confit to a gourmet burger. The short rib sandwich is one dish that really hits the mark, and it's a refreshing preparation of the meat that's become so commonplace on menus. The tender smoky meat is topped with lots of sharp Wisconsin cheddar and mild shishito peppers that add some texture without making the sandwich too spicy. It's served on soft and fresh ciabatta with a side of plump onion rings that are humbly ( and deliciously ) battered in Miller High Life.
I was excited to try the pork shank, which is served with pappardelle, oyster mushrooms, arugula and, allegedly, mascarpone. I've had similar dishes that have knocked my socks off but, sadly, this one did not. The pork shank was cooked to tender perfection and presented artfully, but the meat needed more seasoning. My pappardelle was served nearly naked. There was a bit of barely discernable sauce, but I couldn't find any mascarpone on my plate. My waiter said the mascarpone is usually "hidden" under the pasta or pork. Apparently, mine was hidden all the way back in the kitchen. The waiter brought me a side to add to my dish, which did help to form a sauce, of sorts, when mixed with the juices from the pork. But even with the mascarpone, the dish was lacking in flavor.
My meal, in spite of some hits and misses, left me without enough room for dessert, but I was able to handle a shot of the house-infused bourbon, which is served in a whimsically out-of-scale shot glass with a long stem. The infusions for the $5 shots change periodically. When I visited, the infusion was a mix of white grapes, ginger and mint, which lent a refreshing flavor to the bourbon. It was a fun novelty, a good stand-in for dessert and fat-free to boot.
The Dawson is at 730 W. Grand Ave.; call 312-243-8955 or visit www.the-dawson.com .
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