Comfort food with a twist: that’s how Southport Grocery and Café describes its casual-chic take on what’s for breakfast, lunch — and now, dinner. In the 10 years since this Lakeview charmer opened, patrons have been enjoying breakfast favorites like Bread Pudding Pancakes and The Grown-up Pop Tart (mascarpone and local fruit preserves between layers of grilled pastry) as well as creative lunchtime fare like pork confit on rye or olive oil poached tuna on homemade focaccia.
“After 10 years I figured we were old enough to serve dinner,” says owner Lisa Santos. Santos moved to Chicago from Milwaukee 25 years ago with a degree in business and ended up in culinary school (she developed the recipe for Bread Pudding Pancakes). Santos is right. The café’s sophisticated daytime fare dresses up nicely at night. Adding dinner service — on Thursday and Friday nights only — is a natural extension of the eatery’s capabilities.
Candlelight becomes the spot, which appeals day or night with its enticing displays of baked goods and gleaming jars of pickles and preserves, most of it made upstairs. Less a grocery and more of an artfully stocked larder, Southport Grocery and Café devotes most of its space to dine-in service. The art extends beyond the kitchen to the walls, with a parade of interesting paintings for sale, some by a talented member of the wait staff. The blackboard that highlights daily specials is itself a work of art.
So what’s for dinner? The seasonal menu reflects Southport Grocery’s farm-to-table approach, creating dishes that take advantage of the freshest ingredients. While you ponder the possibilities, sip a drink from the cannily curated list of beverages: a half dozen kinds of beer or hard cider ($5 for a Great Lakes – Edmund Fitzgerald porter); wines by the glass and bottle from Chile, Italy, Argentina, Sonoma and Washington state; or a creative cocktail. I tried a Night & Day (Bulleit Bourbon with Maria’s Ginger Beer); the $7 concoction was smooth as silk, with a sensible amount of alcohol.
The dinner menu mixes small and big plates. Appetizers get as much respect from the chef as entrees, and some diners subbed those smaller dishes for big ones. The woman at the table next to mine gave a big thumbs-up to the Mac ’n Cheese ($6), elevated by morels, leeks and a chorizo crumb topping.
I sampled three appetizers. Apple Salad ($9) boasted crisp slices of apples from Mick Klug’s Michigan farm along with pickled pears, kale, pecans and ribbons of gouda, with a wonderfully smoky onion marmalade. Green Bean Poutine ($9) is a healthier take on the Quebec pig-out classic, subbing delicate tempura green beans for fries, doused in shitake gravy in lieu of cheese curds, and accented with house made bacon, all very tasty.
But the chef had me with the simply titled Soup ($9). Our server poured celery root and parsnip bisque over a generous chunk of perfectly steamed lobster (I lived in Maine and am particular about this) and a pile of pickled apple shreds, which give a pleasant acidity to the smooth puree. I licked the spoon. I was tempted to eat a second bowl and call it a night.
But being a responsible food critic, I ventured on, into the land of big plates. The choices included Lemon Fish crusted with ’nduja, a spreadable salami, with a fennel salad ($22) and Ravilolo (roasted cauliflower, oyster mushroom, watercress, yellow curry) for $15. I ordered Short Rib: Hoosier grass-fed beef, sweet potato puree, braised mustard greens, kimchi onion rings. The double portion of ribs ($28) was generous, and the meat was tender, but perhaps those Hoosiers are feeding too much grass to their steers, because the meat was encased in rings of unpleasant fat, and even the tasty accompaniments couldn’t rescue the dish. The $12 Burger with pork confit and cranberry mostarda on a challah bun might be a better choice.
My dining companion wisely chose the ½ Roasted Amish Chicken ($22) with butternut squash and cipollini onions. The dish achieved the near impossible: crisply roasted chicken skin with meat kept wonderfully moist, thanks to a shitake mushroom broth. Comfort food at its best.
Southport Grocery has always excelled at sweets (customers can ship cupcakes to friends and family via their website), and the dinner menu allows the chefs to expand those choices — along with your waist, but hey, you don’t eat out every night. I tasted two desserts and loved both. The Nut Toast ($8) plays off crisp almond frangipane against sprightly apple chutney, candied almonds and cinnamon ice cream from Milwaukee’s Purple Door creamery (available in the grocery). The Cranberry Orange Float ($8) layered Purple Door vanilla ice cream with frozen grapes and grape granita in a refreshingly tart-smooth combo.
Servers are friendly and attentive, and the kitchen turns out food at an easy pace. After dinner, choose a treat or two from the grocery shelves to bring the flavors of Southport Grocery right into your home.
3552 N. Southport, Chicago
Breakfast and lunch M-F 7-4; Sat 8-5; Sun 8-4
Dinner Thursday and Friday 5-10 pm
Reservations (773) 665-0100; walk-ins welcome
Catering: Thanksgiving dinner to go for 12 for $325; salads, platters, desserts
Photos: Southport Grocery & Leanne Star