City Mouse – Solid Eats and 7-Day Brunch in the Ace Hotel
When I heard that we’d be trying City Mouse, a new venture by Chef Jason Vincent at the swanky Ace Hotel in West Loop, I jumped at the chance. How often do you get the opportunity to review a restaurant from an acclaimed chef who shares both your first name and hometown? Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, Chef Vincent has made a name for himself here in Chicago several times over, heading up kitchens in acclaimed restaurants Lula Café and his own Nightwood. Having Food and Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chef” and the Michelin Guide’s “Bib Gourmand” awards under his belt, he made the tough decision to close Nightwood in 2014 to spend time with his family. Opening Giant and now City Mouse show how taking a break and coming back to your craft can elevate your game even more.
We went for dinner on a Wednesday night, and there was a decent buzz in the dining room. The bar and restaurant are basically an extension of the hotel lobby, so there’s an open feel. Fire pits illuminated an all-season outdoor lounge and cast a glow on the space. After a warm welcome from the restaurant staff we were seated in the dining area in a corner booth that was roomy and comfortable. Looking over the menu, it’s clear that this is a place for Chef Vincent to play around a bit. There’s an Italian base that’s peppered with Asian influences. We began with a couple of nice cocktails and asked about signature dishes. For appetizers, we settled on the recommended ‘Country Mouse’ amuse-bouche and the ‘Mutsu Apples And Farro’ salad. The country mouse is a croquette of corn and cheddar puree with a crisp caramel and caviar topper. A fun little bite to start the meal – you get an idea of the plays on flavor and texture that are to come.
The double-sweetness of the corn and caramel had me a little worried that the Mutsu salad would be too sweet, having both the apples and grilled peach. Instead, it had enough heat to mute the natural sweetness of the fruit, and was dressed in a nice punchy ginger miso vinaigrette. The crisp apples and kohlrabi play with the crunchy farro giving as much textural interest as flavor. The pecorino added a nice salty punch. At this point we realized heat was going to be a theme. Even my cocktail the ‘Dead Work’ was infused with Ancho chile, giving a layer of nice smoky burn to the rye whiskey. In fact, chilies are a regular guest star on the menu, playing their part on many of the dishes. While I enjoyed the heat level in the salad, my wife found it a bit too much.
We also sampled the Burrata and Brussel Sprouts, which came with some toasted, bagna cauda-coated toast points. The creamy burrata was a necessary foil for the slightly over seasoned brussels. This was one dish where you have to take care to compose your bites, or risk losing the balance the chef intended.
For entrees, we tried the Tagliatelle which was perfectly al-dente freshly-made pasta with a scampi-like chili butter sauce. While the pasta was great, and the sweet plump shrimp were perfectly cooked, the way the dish was presented led all the sauce to run to the bottom of the bowl. The pasta on top wasn’t coated enough, and as you work your way down, you got too much sauce. After the heat of the salad, I was expecting a little more punch from the chili butter sauce as well. The Smoked Chicken, however, was a home run – slow smoked 12-hr chicken thigh on top of cashew rice and drizzled with a spicy aioli. The depth of the smoke and tenderness of the chicken played well with the texture of fried cashew in the rice.
Mainly because I am a self-proclaimed burg-a-holic, we had to try the burger as well. With so many great burgers in the city, we had to see how Chef Vincent’s version ranked. While it gets an honorable mention, there are still some heavier hitters to try first. Highlights are the spicy pickles, reinforcing the slight heat pleasantly present across the menu, and the ‘special sauce’ which was a nice balanced dressing. The patties themselves were seared around the edges, but that sear didn’t coat the whole burger surface. It read a bit dry overall, despite the gooey melted cheese. The patties were well seasoned, but the fries were definitely over-seasoned.
To round out the meal, we tried the apple pie which came with a smooth apple ice cream and brown-sugar candied almond slivers. The tart apples kept the pie from tipping too sweet, and the thick crust was tasty even if slightly dry. Boasting inventive cocktails and a concise but thrifty wine list, this is a great spot for some drinks as well as snacks. One of the biggest draws is the 7-day brunch. While it’s great to have brunch on a lazy Sunday, not everyone has a standard schedule so it’s a treat to be able to brunch whenever you can as opposed to looking longingly at everyone’s Instagram posts Sunday morning.
Nestled in the West Loop across from the Google building, City Mouse represents the rapid rise of what was once a mainly industrial and meat-packing neighborhood. Just west of the hustle-and-bustle of downtown, there’s a real gritty vibe in and around the streets, which are still peppered with butchers and meat-packing businesses. It’s a very Chicago vibe, and it’s been steadily claiming its spot as the dining mecca in the city. Once you walk inside the lobby of the hotel, you immediately pick up on the clean-design vibe. There’s an industrial quality that matches the neighborhood, but a high-design feel that makes it luxurious at the same time. Exposed concrete ceilings and columns are framed by a row of tall plants and hanging tapestries. The dining room is surrounded by glass, while the mod-style furniture and industrial feel add up to a chic environment.
There’s a reason why Chef Vincent has had repeated success, and his inventiveness and care come through here as well. Combined with the high energy in the neighborhood, hip atmosphere and inviting-looking patio (which we can’t wait to try next summer), this is a great place to visit whether you’re around the West Loop, having meetings at Google or looking for a new place to try when visiting the city.
- Hip location, great design and tons of indoor/outdoor space
- Inventive menu from an acclaimed chef with lots of fresh pasta with a spicy flair
- Creative cocktails which pair nicely with the food and sing some of the same notes
- Brunch seven days a week, perfect for people with odd work schedules
- Wait staff that’s at once knowledgeable and attentive, but still laid back
- May feel a little cold and trendy for some, despite the experience being warm and friendly
- Spicy dishes across the menu, great if you like that and luckily nothing is red-hot alert
- Some over-seasoned components on a few of the dishes
- Coffee program seems like an afterthought, probably better during brunch (and sure to improve with the addition of a Stumptown coffee shop opening across the lobby soon)
- Parking is a nightmare, and valet is $15 – plan accordingly