To appreciate Bread & Wine, the 16-month-old restaurant in the Irving Park neighborhood, it helps to be less literal and more observant.
For instance, you might be surprised, as I was initially, to discover that the kitchen doesn't set out much bread. No bread basket, for instance. Not even an a la carte bread-purchase option, as one can find at Balena, Girl & the Goat, Vera and others (though Bread & Wine's carryout market does sell baguettes).
This apparent paradox is explained in two ways. First, as chef Curtis Gamble puts it, "I think (of the name) as more of an old-school and classic way of expressing community, sharing and nourishment. We don't have an amazing bread program; we haven't the space or staff for that."
In other words, "Bread & Wine" is more a state of mind than a state of starch.
Second, bread is a component in many of Gamble's dishes, in sometimes subtle ways. There are, of course, the slices of toasted sourdough that are part of his cheese and charcuterie plates, wherein customers pick and choose from a half-dozen domestic cheeses and about nine meats, most of them made in-house.
Highlights among the charcuterie are the slightly aromatic "pig-face pancetta," a house-cured and cherry-smoked head cheese infused with juniper and coriander; silky chicken liver served in a glass jar; and a tasty blood sausage that's a touch lighter than other versions I've had (a good thing).
Elsewhere, tender calamari rings tossed in green-garlic pesto pick up contrasting crunch from shards of lobster crackers, and paper-thin sourdough crisps grace a salad of hydroponic greens, pickled ramps and sliced guinea-hog ham. Ravioli stuffed with pork-shoulder confit, served with rutabaga and bread-and-butter pickled cabbage, contain bits of hard pretzel cooked in hog fat.
Lamb heart, fashioned into an old-school French pate with a touch of bourbon, served over a thick smear of rhubarb mustard alongside tiny croutons and pickled ramps, is one of my favorite dishes (it's an occasional special; grab it when you can).
Gamble's fondness for "other" animal cuts explains the presence of duck testicles, which appear on the menu under a slightly more common name. They're Southern-fried in buttermilk and seasoned flour (at which point these crispy protein nuggets could be just about anything), served with a cabbage crisp that Gamble calls a vegetable chicharron and several cubes of what prove to be Gamble's house hot sauce in jelly form, which perk up the dish considerably.
A few other dishes of note include the coriander-crusted tofu, one of several gluten-free and/or vegetarian dishes on the menu; butter-poached walleye over salsa verde with dots of thickened rhubarb juice; and a glorious presentation of veal loin, served alongside fluffy pieces of semolina dumplings (much like the semolina gnocchi on B&W's noteworthy brunch menu, only these are vivid-green due to an infusion of ramp tops), fiddlehead ferns and a lovely cheddar sauce (since changed to a curried goat-milk sauce).
Among the sweet finales are popcorn panna cotta (the cream actually steeped in heirloom popcorn), crowned by salted caramel sauce and caramel corn, and a beautifully balanced pink peppercorn and pineapple cake with pineapple relish and coconut pudding. And there's always the option of more cheese.
Service is capable for the most part, capable of answering just about any question you might ask, provided you ask. The wine list appeals by virtue of its interesting selections and general budget-friendliness.
Bread & Wine occupies a former laundromat, which explains the small parking lot in front and the hard-surface walls within. Seating is split among regular tables (a bit too closely spaced, not that eavesdropping is likely in this raucously noisy room), a bar featuring some ambitious cocktail creations (a bit hit or miss, though the Blood & Smoke is a keeper) and a chef counter that places patrons just inches from the kitchen action. It's the warmest sitting area in the restaurant, and if you're into chef interaction and the occasional gratis nibble, this is the place to be.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
Bread & Wine
3732 W. Irving Park Road; 773-866-5266; breadandwinechicago.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Sunday
Prices: Large plates $16-$24
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; parking lot (small) and street parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.