A former student was leaving town, and it was put up or shut up time on promises we’d get a drink together one day. He invited me to his local haunt after work, timed for a break in his packing schedule. Before the second beer I did the adult thing, and arranged for some solids to arrive, to soak up the ethanol. When the plates showed up, and we dug in, I started to reconsider my reluctance to review bars. I took another look around. Two couches, two kinds of flowered wallpaper, a stage for karaoke and open mic, swing on the sound system, plenty loud. Another generation would have called it bohemian, but in today’s parlance, Gypsy Parlor is a hipster bar – one that offers surprisingly good food. ¶ Many premises licensed to sell alcohol offer least-common-denominator chow, menus designed to offer little challenge to their cooks. (Who, in all fairness, often are burdened with more responsibilities than just cooking.)
At Gypsy Parlor, owners Gabrielle and Todd Mattina decided their rehabilitation of a century-old tavern on Grant Street should feature a scratch menu that aims to reflect the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood. The menu mentions tabouli, falafel, pastelillos, samosas, banh mi and poutine.
In the hands of chef David Fronczak, sometimes they appear in the same dish. A determinedly cross-cultural menu can produce horrors, but it also can produce worthy innovations. Banh mi poutine ($11) is a fair example of some of the results here. Is it poutine? No. Is it tasty? Yes.
Turns out that if you start with good housemade fries, top them with pulled pork, cheese, gravy and house-pickled vegetables like jalapenos, cucumbers and carrots, the result is eminently edible. The acid crunch of the vegetables balances some of the fat and carbs, making it a worthy experiment.
Another is the falaco ($10), two tacos on doubled-up corn tortillas overloaded with black bean fritters, shredded chicken, corn salsa, shredded cabbage and cilantro cream. The fritters were worth eating by themselves, and the assemblage was a tasty mess. Also worth trying: lamb samosas ($4), two fried crunchy pastry triangles stuffed with seasoned lamb, served with a cup of decent tzatziki, and the plump beef pastelillo ($3).
Some of the dishes I tried won mixed marks. The tabouli ($9) is not tabouli, but I enjoyed the fresh, well-seasoned salad of quinoa, grape tomatoes and red onion. It came with alleged falafel patties that I did not enjoy, the beans having been pureed to a peanut butter consistency, then undercooked. The roasted artichoke salad ($10) was a sprightly arugula salad laced with peppadews and toasty pignoli, but the small half-artichoke was more trouble to eat than it was worth.
Tandoori chicken skewers ($14), grilled strips of yogurt-marinaded chicken breast, were underflavored and overcooked, as chicken breast is wont to be. That was the only large dish that came off as a failure, though.
Caldo verde ($10), a chorizo and kale stew thickened with potato, was hearty and well-spiced. It arrived bearing a fried egg and a grilled slab of bread, for a dish that would go down well in February after you shovel a path to the bar. Trianguli ($12 for five) were hearty housemade ravioli stuffed with butternut squash, spinach and ricotta, then napped in a pink beet cream sauce. The pasta was crude, too thick in spots, but there is something ineffably charming about homemade noodles, and I would order it again.
There was plenty of thought given to vegans and vegetarians, including a special of vegetable stew in Moroccan-spiced coconut milk ($10).
By the time I found myself eating a precisely cooked flatiron steak ($16), charred on the outside and pink within, I no longer thought it weird to be enjoying something called wasabi blackberry crema. A nip of horseradish heat and round fruit from the berries made it an able companion to the husky beef. For all the menu gambles, it was a lucky throw. The yam risotto was overcooked, though.
Desserts included a Romanian fried cheese dumpling called papanasi ($5), which arrived in a cloud of sugary crunch, atop a bed of delicious apple-fennel jam.
Our server was solicitous and detail-oriented, even though she also was the bartender. The nook where I ate was dim, but I was free to bump up the rheostat until I could read the menu. An empty table nearby held a bucket positioned under a damaged spot of ceiling. Maybe it’s a sign of how shabby chic can grow on you, but that didn’t dampen my experience.
Eating at Gypsy Parlor had its ups and downs, but it offers more thoughtful food than most bars can muster. If you’re looking for a West Side neighborhood tavern, the eating opportunities are just icing on the papanasi.
Gypsy Parlor - 7
Rehabilitated Grant Street tavern offers neighborhood surprisingly ambitious menu.
WHERE: 376 Grant St. (551-0001, thegypsyparlor.com)
HOURS: Kitchen open until midnight. Opens 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Saturday, at 2:30 p.m. Friday, and 4 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $3-10; sandwiches and burgers, $8-$14; entrees, $9-$18.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.