Phil Vettel reviews The Loyalist

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CHICAGO, Ill. -- The Loyalist, the "other" restaurant by chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, sits a floor below Smyth, the duo's fine-dining room. The Loyalist is Mary Ann to Smyth's Ginger; Betty to Smyth's Veronica. You're dazzled by Veronica, but Betty's more fun to hang out with.

The Loyalist is a drop-in-anytime kind of place (though reservations are accepted, walk-ins are encouraged), dark as a grotto and outfitted with long bar-height tables (seated communally), a few booths, and stools pulled up to the long bar. There's even a large TV, often tuned to whatever sporting event seems most important at the time, other times screening, say, "To Kill a Mockingbird."

The lounge-y atmosphere is fitting, as cocktails — well-made and cleverly named (the No True Scotsman uses blended scotch, the Papa Doble is a strong rum drink) — dominate the beverage options. There are only six wines listed, available by the 6- or 12-ounce pour, or by the bottle. I know there's lots of wine upstairs, so the limited choice is part of The Loyalist's identity. "Limited ambition" sounds pejorative, but this restaurant is intentionally keeping things simple. The Loyalist isn't shooting for Michelin stars; that's Smyth's job.

Spend the $6 for one of the homey biscuits, large enough for two (eating) or four (nibbling). It's a country biscuit that seems to cry for gravy, but instead there is n'duja butter, spicy enough to balance the inherent sweetness in the biscuit.

The five other small plates are familiar-sounding but with subtle twists; silky chicken-liver mousse over grilled sourdough, for example, is mixed with salted cherries for a tart accent, and sliced radishes add a bit of acidity. A tangle of charred octopus tentacles over shelling beans gets a bit of a spark from shishito peppers. Grilled-avocado puree and pumpkin-seed butter distinguish the beet salad; and lightly smoked potatoes, crushed and fried for a crispy-tender effect, surround a salt-cured egg in a nest of sauerkraut (plenty of kraut; light on the sauer)

As ought to be the case, there is a burger, and if you're a fan of the thin, double-patty cheeseburger that seems to be everywhere these days, the Loyalist cheeseburger is one of the best of its kind. The patties are a mix of short rib, chuck and ground bacon, the pickles are housemade and the cheese is American. But what truly sets this creation apart are the onions — some pickled, some charred, some raw — and the onion-infused mayo that adds even more richness. No disrespect to Au Cheval, the restaurant that launched this craze, but I'd come back here first.

The burger aside, my favorite main course is the crispy chicken thighs, served over rice grits and a killer spicy garlic sauce, along with crisped ginger and pickled tripe (if you're tripe-averse, try this version; the acidity masks much of tripe's problematic funkiness). The "BBQ pork shoulder," an homage to barbecue, is slow-roasted pork with a sweet-sour-smoky sauce. Mine was fattier than I'd prefer, but the flavor was good, and the inclusion of a charred wedge of cabbage over an onion cream sauce is inspired. Broiled sea trout, with greens and turnips, offers beautiful color and flavor.

There are several steaks on the menu. Well, really there's one steak on the menu, dry-aged rib-eye, but the kitchen cuts the beef into several sizes, generally ranging from 22 to 48 ounces with several stops in between.

This restaurant will never get the attention that will be paid — deservedly — to Smyth upstairs. But as a casual, neighborhood-y spot with affordable food and drinks, The Loyalist does exactly what it sets out to do.

pvettel@chicagotribune.com
Twitter @philvettel