My sister invited me to join her in Northside to try a restaurant known for its split personality. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the place calls itself Vout. On Fridays and Saturdays, it "transforms" into an upscale (read: very expensive) eatery known as Slim's. As Vout, it's much more affordable, with most entrees priced under $10. Okay, I want to talk to Vout now. Is Vout in there, Slim?
Having only been to Northside a handful of times, I wasn't quite sure where Vout was located. Google maps can take you only so far --being on a corner, the place is much easier to recognize if you're driving south on Hamilton Ave. rather than from downtown like I was. Vout/Slims is on a corner at the intersection of Hamilton and Blue Rock, its door etched inconspicuously with the name.
Upon entering the totally empty restaurant (having beaten the dinner rush), I was greeted by the owner behind the counter, who immediately recognized my look of, "what the hell do I do next?" He smiled with, "is this your first time here?" With my nod, he briefly explained the procedure, directing me to a bundle of menus in a bin attached to one end of the counter. There are no waiters here who come to your table to take your order. Instead, you look over the menu, approach the counter and place it and pay for it there.
The very front of the restaurant offers two large tables with many chairs for family-style seating, while more intimate tables are available up a small flight of stairs in the back. I made a beeline for the back of the room.
The menus are regularly updated, handwritten, then photocopied. On the back of each menu is a glossary, describing everything from what vichyssoise is to what comes with the Pernil Asado entree. It's too bad they didn't also include phonetic spellings for some of the items; if it weren't for my one quarter of 7th grade French and a two-day trip to Paris, I would have struggled with "vichyssoise."
My sister soon arrived carrying a six-pack of 312 Urban Wheat Ale. It's BYOB at Vout/Slim's, and they were nice enough to lend us a bottle opener. I'd never had 312 Ale before, but am familiar with Goose Island from all those Beer of the Month clubs I used to get as Christmas gifts.
Ever the vegetarian, Sis started off with a Mango quesadilla, packed with four kinds of cheeses and topped with fresh tomato salsa and watercress. There are quite a bit of herbs growing along Vout's windows that they regularly incorporate into their menu selections, including the quesadilla. Watercress seems to be the theme ingredient: it showed up in all but one of our selections.
I choose the Watercress Vichyssoise appetizer, a vibrant green, cold soup with leeks, potato and watercress. It was decorated with a single watercress leaf --very elegant-looking. The taste was cool and refreshing, though the flavor was a bit on the bland side.
Our entrees included "The Vegetarian," a platter consisting of a half-ear of corn on the cob, black beans, greens, roasted tomatoes and roasted broccoli; and the Pernil Asado, a seasoned, roast pork with two strips of crispy, fried plantains and, of course, watercress. Sis also ordered a side of Kumquat rice, which turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the evening. The rice had a vibrant, zesty citrus flavor, but not overpowering --quite addictive.
My pork was moist, tender and very flavorful. I've had pulled pork at many a barbecue joint, where I'll habitually drown it in assorted sauces. But Pernil Asado needs no such dressing, with every bite as rich a taste experience as the last. There was a deep complexity to it that dared me to put my fork down...and I couldn't. The plantain strips were warm, crisp and a little salty; I traded several pieces of them to my sister for extra bites of her rice.
Sis also had me try some of her vegetarian platter: the roasted vegetables and the beans were a hit for me: all very well seasoned. The beans offered a pleasing hint of cumin and molasses. But the star of her veggie-fest was most definitely the Kumquat rice.
For dessert we shared an oatmeal cookie sundae topped with chocolate fudge and peanuts. The whole thing was dumped artfully into a large glass, with rivulets of chocolate fudge oozing through crevices between scoops of vanilla. The soft, homemade oatmeal cookie chunks combined with the peanuts and ice cream to make an exciting textural finish.
Although Sis bought my meal this time, I'm fairly certain it didn't cost more than $25. Quite a great deal, considering the emphasis on fresh ingredients and the care and detail behind the food's preparation and presentation.
I don't know what the place is like as Slim's, but as Vout, the restaurant's personality is simple, approachable and inviting.
Price: Moderately Expensive ($11 - $16 per person)