Owen & Engine has earned its acclaim. Its inventive iteration of the British ‘gastropub’--hideous word and appealing concept--would thrive even in the culinary hothouse of London, despite all the competition it would find there. Owen & Engine faces no such rivals in Chicago (the estimable Pleasant House in Bridgeport of all places, with its peerless Royal Pies, is not the same thing), and nearly none elsewhere in the United States.
Even so, the savory puddings that represent traditional British food at its finest do not appear on the menu at Owen & Engine, because when they did appear, nobody ordered them. That is a shame, but anyone hoping to turn a profit with British food in America, or at britishfoodinamerica, can only bring the average consumer so far.
Owen & Engine 2700 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 713-235-2930
The Editor was joined by two bright people recently in San Francisco, an academic and doctor who asked about her vocation and avocations. When she took the leap and disclosed her stewardship of bfia, their response was uniform and predictable.
It was derisory, even mocking, and no amount of gentle rejoinder altered their attitude a jot. Instead, jollity all around. The danger: “Oxymoron. Oxymoron! It’s an oxymoron! I keep coming back to oxymoron! There is no such thing and it’s bad, really bad! And the British were shits, just shits, in their Empire! They made everybody feel bad not to be British and nobody likes that!”
Now this response may lack a certain internal logic, score scant points for originality and roam rather far from the point under discussion, but the sentiment is representative.
Not that everyone responds that way; one of the Editor’s other companions was sufficiently intrigued to visit the site via cell during our conversation, and vowed to return at an appropriate time. Nonetheless the negatives outweigh the positives on the ground, and Owen & Engine is to be forgiven for their numerous omissions, particularly because what they do cook is so good. Happily enough it does seem to work; the place celebrated its third birthday with the close of August.
Even better, or perhaps just as good; the beer. They keep a steady rotation of four beers in cask and offer lots more on tap, along with a large selection of bottles including eight from Britain. The selection, which includes the outstanding Jaipur IPA and even better Timothy Taylor’s Landlord, could not have been better chosen.
Despite the hoppy playground, wines and booze may tempt the most devoted beerhound. Prices are fair, they even stock a sprightly Txakolina, and you can get those rarities in American restaurants, sherries and a Port, the solid Taylor Fladgate 20 year tawny (no relation to the lurking landlord).
The rooms themselves are elegantly casual, with nods to Englishry that do not descend into camp. It is comfortable there; you would want to settle in, even with Quenchers and all its drafts down the street, and even if the only available food were bags of potato chips and pretzels (although you can get a big soft one of these, served with Welsh rabbit, which they have the anachronistic misfortune to call rarebit). Look to our archive for “The Rabbit Variations” and other articles and recipes for cheese rabbits.
The gastropublic ethos of local, local, always local reigns. On that plane this is Spitalfields or Shoreditch via Brooklyn with a possible detour round San Francisco Bay. Owen & Engine headlines all their suppliers and judging from the food they all know what they are about. The house smokes and cures its own fish and meat, makes its own sausages and pickles its own… pickles. All these things are superb.
So are the grapes poached in olive oil that appear with a salad of greens. The only place the Editor has encountered something similar is in the work of Stephen Markwick whose restaurant in Bristol, Culinaria, everyone should visit and whose book, A Very Honest Cook (review by bfia lodged in our archive), everyone should buy.
Gastropubs in Britain are a catholic lot, and Owen & Engine shares their culinary curiosity. The kitchen is not chained to the food of the British Isles, unless you agree with Peter Ross (Curious Cuisine, London 2012) that lasagna appeared on the tables of medieval England. That is not to say that no British items speckle the concise menu; they do, in the guise of a Cornish pasty (that arrives on a trencher), pork rinds (but spiced with the rich heat of molé), bubble and squeak, a heady beef tartare (with horseradish ice cream; shades of Ronald Johnson’s shade!), Scotch eggs and more.
This last requires a proprietary paragraph. The sausage surrounding the egg was devoid of grease, a crisped coat and chewy within; the egg it enveloped was dark yolked and runny and good. The entire assembly was so good that we ordered more. Advertisers currently are spreading the notion that more is better; we want more, more, and in this case gluttony prevailed and we did.
And so to fish and chips, an item that no sane person should order without bearing in mind that hope often trumps experience to cloud our collective judgment. Like jambalaya, the fish and chips served even in reputable restaurants can be, and usually is, dreadful. Not here; at Owen & Engine it sings, to the accompaniment of malt vinegar mayonnaise (genius), pureed peas (Old School and proper), even the coveted Sauce Gribiche (utterly, caperly English despite the rather garish and well, foreign, name).
We could go on, and did, to the ploughman’s (those housemade meats, that farmhouse Cheddar), to oysters (why are they fresher in the restaurants of Chicago than New York?), to bangers and mash.
Service was solid if not special, but so friendly that we failed to notice, not much anyway.
Go to Owen & Engine. As if Chicago already did not offer enough, the place alone is worth the trip.
As special bonus prizes, Fat Willy’s squats next door, where the barbecue is nearly as good as the best you will find down south; cheap parking in the garage across the street.