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UPDATE: April 13
Well that was short-lived. It seems Ericka Burke has quietly parted ways with Oddfellows, choosing instead to return to her post at Volunteer Park Café. It appears to be amicable, and it’s not terribly surprising given the relatively outspoken criticism of the food (including by Derschang herself). Brendan Kiley breaks it down over here.
Best news yet? Apparently culinary rock star Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce and Corson Building fame will be on board during the interim, although I can’t tell if he’s actually cooking or just consulting on a menu redesign. Only one way to find out!
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Last month, in the midst of the snowstorms and giftwrap, local coolhunting impresario Linda Derschang quietly opened her latest venture on Capitol Hill – Oddfellows Café and Bar. Established in the century-old Oddfellows building on 10th and Pine and promoted as a collaboration with chef Ericka Burke (of Volunteer Park Café and Carmelita fame), I was immediately intrigued by the concept. Would the place succeed as both hipster mecca and soccer mom sanctuary? I strapped on my snowshoes and set forth to find out, that friggin’ R.E.M. song stuck on permanent repeat in my head (you know the one).
Speaking of music, Derschang has always focused on the significance of music at her establishments, and Oddfellows is no different. There is no jukebox here, but the music is loud and notable and the playlist is meticulously crafted. There is nary a dead animal in sight. I guess Linda has finally gotten over the taxidermy chic so prominent at Smith and King’s Hardware. Instead, the décor is all vintage sepia photographs and antique kitchen wares. There is an enormous, faded American flag hanging on the wall by the front door. The space is cavernous and rustic, all brick and worn hardwood. The sheer size of the airy room is shocking in comparison to Derschang’s other places around town. It reminds me of an old-school dining hall, with long tables and benches and a constant low level roar.
The menu is equally thoughtful, and highlights Ericka Burke’s straightforward approach to food preparation. Lots of grilled sandwiches and baked goods and other comfort foods. A postage stamp on the printed menu says “We love… we love… SHEPHERDS PIE”. As it turns out, so do I. Creamy florets of buttery mashed potatoes are delicately piped over savory ground beef, diced celery, carrots and onions. Simple and warm and good. Perfect with a pint of Rogue Dead Guy Ale, one of my very favorite winter beers. The café menu during the day is not substantially different from the bar menu at night, with the most obvious distinction being that the deep fryer is not functional while the sun is out. So in the evening, when the baby strollers have been replaced by laughably tight jeans, you can order french fries served in a great big silver coffee tin and a side of special sauce to go along with your Oddfellow sandwich (apparently ketchup and curry powder equals special). During the day you must place your order at the bar and take a number to your table, but traditional wait service is offered at night.
That signature Oddfellow panini is really quite exceptional – a trio of meats (salami, coppa and ham) grilled up with tangy, pickled red onions and melted gruyere on toasty slabs of dark wheat bread. A perfect harmony of bold flavors. Those fries however, were not so good. Mealy, underdone, bland. On the other hand, the pork rillettes served on crostini with cornichons, dijon mustard and more of those outstanding pickled onions ranks with some of the best I’ve ever had. Rich and lush and served in a cute glass jar, slather the shredded pork over the crispy hunks of bread and try not to drool on yourself. Enjoy with the signature Oddfellow cocktail – bourbon and cointreau and blood orange bitters. In general, the drinks are strong and served in quaint, old-fashioned cocktail glasses (check out the Elder Fashion No. 2 – gin and campari and grapefruit).
I think my only real complaint with Oddfellows has to be the ridiculous amount of energy spent on branding. I know Derschang is an incredibly successful businesswoman, but from the sandwiches to the cocktails to the cookies (chocolate chips, walnuts, molasses), nearly everything seems to be appended with the OddfellowTM name. There’s even Oddfellow swag for sale – tote bags, t-shirts, postcards, etc. I know name recognition is important, but this seems like overkill to me. Of course, maybe I’m just annoyed because I still can’t get that frickin’ song out of my head. Why do the heathens rage behind the firehouse…?