Trenchermen (Chicago): The brothers Sheerin have a hearty appetite for creative, innovative flavors

Chefs Mike and Pat Sheerin are dedicated to creating dishes where each ingredient stands alone, but also plays incredibly well with its platemates.  Photo by Huge Galdones

A nibble of sardine.  A bite of coconut-horseradish fluff.  A sip of garlic-laced zucchini purée.  And finally, a swirl of the spoon that melds all these elements — and more — together into one magnificent medley.

I couldn’t help myself.  I was literally playing with my food.  And this went on from start (the above-noted chilled zucchini soup) to finish (chocolate marquis).

I’m sure this sort of thing happens frequently at Trenchermen, which means “hearty eaters.”  Here, chefs Mike and Pat Sheerin are putting out wondrous creations that amuse, bemuse and inspire people to pull out their camera phones and post rapturous Tweets.

Pat (left) and Mike (right) were introduced to ethnic flavors and foods, and encouraged to be adventurous eaters as kids growing up on Chicago’s North Side.  Michael Stryder

The Sheerin brothers have long been part of the Chicago dining scene — most recently with Mike racking up awards at Blackbird and Pat ramping it up at The Signature Room at the 95th. Their new Wicker Park venture, which opened in July, partners the duo with noted restaurateurs Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner (Nightwood, Bangers & Lace).

The dishes, which arrive in a gorgeously arranged, deconstructed state, “are crafted to work well together, but we make a conscious effort that everything on the plate has a purpose and tastes delicious on its own,” Pat Sheerin says.

Inspirations are often commonplace (caprese salad, Greek egg-lemon soup) — and sometimes even downright lowbrow (tater tots, bubble gum).

“The jumping-off point is always a familiar-flavored dish, something people know,” Pat Sheerin says.

But then the brothers apply their imaginations and some mad skills to create dishes that seem altogether new.

The outcome “is one little twist away” from the source, Pat Sheerin says.  (I’d put it at a good two or three.)

He uses heirloom tomatoes ($12) as an example.  (Please note that this dish may now be gone from the Sheerins’ seasonally driven menu.)

Fervent about flavor, the chefs examined bubblegum and developed a sauce that incorporates its various components.  Photo by Huge Galdones

“Who doesn’t love a great caprese?” Pat Sheerin says.

True, there’s a toss of ripe tomatoes and fresh herbs.  (I also detected a few prunishly sweet roasted tomatoes in the mix.)  But the obligatory balsamic comes in the form of a dollop of house-made white-balsamic ice cream.  And chopped apricot pits add a bit of crunch and an unexpected bitter almond essence.

“It’s a little nuance.  It’s not a far stretch,” Pat Sheerin says.  Indeed, the dish isn’t outlandish, but it’s cleverer than the chef lets on.

The duo “always, always” does their research, obsessively fussing over flavors.  “We don’t want to bastardize anything.  We want to know what we’re talking about,” Pat Sheerin says.  So that’s how they developed, say, their bubblegum sauce — Mike’s idea — that accompanies pork belly ($24).   Studying the flavor compounds in bubblegum, they found mint, coconut, almond, banana and vanilla and then worked all of these into a curry-like condiment.

Growing up on Chicago’s North Side, the brothers were exposed to a variety of ethnic foods — particularly from southeast Asia and Mexico.  The Sheerin family even had a weekly Vietnamese takeout night.

“We had a very open food family,” Pat Sheerin says.  “We were given the exploratory gene and we rolled with it.”

So ethnic flavors are worked into a number of dishes, including the aged Pekin duck breast ($23).  Perfectly delicious on its own, the breast became sublime with the addition of sweet umeboshi pickled plum paste and a side of crunchy-soft fried rice balls.

Pickle tots ($11), already the restaurant’s signature dish, are a Russian-Jewish cross-pollination of two bar food staples – tater tots and fried pickles.  But the airy and greaseless pickle-flecked potato puffs are at least three twists away from either.  The Sheerins plate them with a pastrami-like smoked chicken breast bresaola and thick shmears of borschty, beet juice-infused strained Greek yogurt.

Trenchermen excels in spinning familiar dishes, such as tater tots and fried pickles, into something new and different.   Photo by Huge Galdones

Even the least flashy dishes wow.  The Husband and I were besotted with a gorgeous piece of crisp and flaky hake ($23).  Once again, each component — piquant piquillo pepper broth, lima bean and hazelnut “slaw” and custardy lemon balm — was perfect on its own.  But a quick twirl of my spoon once again created a flavor tsunami.

And then there was dessert.  All four options were compelling, but The Husband and I smartly limited ourselves to two.  Klug blueberries with Gumballhead beer panna cotta ($9) and pound cake bits didn’t stand a chance with chocolate marquis ($9) on the table.  It was a marriage of the familiar (pretzels, caramel corn, chocolate) and the unusual  (tasty but homely black sesame ice cream) — there was absolutely nothing on the plate that cut the wonderful richness of this dessert.

Trencherpeople both, The Husband and I agreed: “Pure decadence on a plate.”

2030 West North Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60647

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