Monday, April 22, 2013

Jekyll & Hyde at Howells & Hood

If you order the seafood salad at a massive, corporate-looking sports bar at the bottom of a downtown Chicago office building, you deserve the mushy, tasteless fish with gloppy dressing you’re likely to get.  It is a marvel that at Howells & Hood, the dish rivals the best versions at seafood-focused restaurants in places like Boston and San Francisco.  Tender, well-charred octopus mixes with a variety of delicately poached shellfish, all adorned simply but robustly with lemon and oregano.  Eat this and you can reasonably imagine being at seaside restaurant in Sicily.  You’ll have to tune out the very-American couple next to you as they order their burgers to be made without salt, and the very American sorority girl a few feet away as she requests a round of Sex on the Beach for her table.
The good vs. evil theme suggested by my post title is inaccurate.  Howells & Hood is not 2 things.  It’s not 3 things, 4 things or 5 things.  Howells & Hood is everything.  It’s a restaurant for locavores, run by a chef who passionately espouses things like rooftop gardening and hyper-local cuisine.  It’s a sports bar for the heavy-drinking frat crowd, such as the ones who, during one of my visits, did shots of Jack and high fives every time their school’s basketball team hit a 3-pointer.  It’s the place where 14 office workers grab lunch together and ignore the gigantic beer list while they drink diet cokes and make fun of the boss.  It’s where tourists go to lay out their guidebooks before planning their Mag Mile shopping adventures.  It’s the spot for beer geeks who want to explore what must be the city’s largest tap beer list. Howells and Hood has high tops and low tops and medium-sized tops.  Indoor bars and outdoor bars.  Booths, tables, and semi-booth-tables.  It has everything.
Not surprisingly, Howells & Hood even has a burger.  A very, very bad burger.  At about 6 inches tall, this burger is inedible as a sandwich unless you pull some of the parts out first.  I started with the inch-thick onion rings, breaded so thickly that the batter inside was still gooey and raw.  I took out the tasteless tomato next, and then brushed off some of the slaw-like shredded lettuce.  I was barely able to get my mouth around the thing now.  Then I sneezed.  The pepper in this monstrosity was ground very coarsely, and there was so much of it that my nostrils were not able to cope.  The next flavor to hit me was carbon.  The exterior was blackened with a burnt crust that obliterated all other flavor.  I had ordered the burger medium rare and there was indeed a corner of the thing that was cooked that way.  The rest of the burger ranged wildly – parts of it were reddish pink and juicy, but more parts were totally grey and dry and there were some parts in between – signs of a cook that doesn’t understand how to manage a fire.
I’ve been to Howells & Hood several times, and for the most part I’ve liked the food.  The seafood salad is special, and I expect to find other gems as I continue exploring the menu.  Howells & Hood is everything, so it takes a bit of time to sort through it all to find the somethings you like.  I work steps away, and with the limited options for good food around, I will be happy to keep exploring.  One can eat at The Purple Pig only so many days in a row.
Howells & Hood
435 N Michigan Ave.  312-262-5310

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