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Saturday, April 29

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Not so long ago, Hopleaf had a reputation for surly service. The bartenders at this Andersonville bar were just mean. The amazing selection of beers -- dozens of Belgian ales and other microbrews on tap and in bottles -- more than made up for the rude treatment, though, and the place was packed every weekend.

About a year ago, the place underwent an amazing transformation. The apartments above and behind the smokey little bar were gutted and turned into additional (non-smoking!) seating and a kitchen was installed -- and with it, table service. The mood of the bartenders brightened almost immediately, and now it's almost a pleasure to order at the bar.

The beer menu continues to dwarf the food menu, but that's OK -- everything I've had has been excellent, and I'd much rather see a limited but consistently good menu than a laundry list of dishes done poorly. The cuisine is mostly Northern French and Belgian, using artisanal and/or organic ingredients whenever possible.

Granted, the Belgians are not well-known for their culinary offerings. However, Belgium is the birthplace of the inaccurately named "French fry," otherwise known as pomme frites -- and Hopleaf's are some of the best I've had. They come on the side of many dishes, usually with a side of garlicy aioli to dip them in.

Probably the most popular items on the menu are the "Mussels for One" and "Mussels for Two," sizable pots full of greenlipped mussels steamed in one of three broths, served with a fresh loaf of French bread and a pint glass of frites. Unless you're starving, these dishes could easily feed double their purported serving size. To wit: on a recent visit, the four people at the next table were happily sharing mussels for two, and it looked like they might not finish off the whole pot.

We started off with the brandade, a puréed mixture of salt cod, garlic, olive oil, milk and cream, lightly broiled and served with garlic toast points. This is a recent addition, although it's been on the menu at La Tache up the street since they opened. The idea of salty fish may turn off some diners, but this rendition is more rich than salty. It went well with my slightly fruity Belgian ale.

For dinner, I ordered the brisket sandwich, which came on dark pumpernickel bread with sour braised cabbage (ie, coleslaw) and dijon mustard, with a side of frites and a ramekin of jus. While the brisket was fall-apart tender, there wasn't much flavor to it, so I was a bit disappointed. It didn't hold a candle to my usual, the Nueskie ham sandwich -- a huge portion of smokey ham with melting gruyere cheese and apple coleslaw on grilled pumpernickel.

My dining companion ordered mussels for one in the white wine cream sauce, which turned out to be a light but creamy broth loaded with julienned carrots, celery and fennel. He came nowhere near finishing the pot, and I graciously helped him out. The mussels were perfectly steamed, and the vegetables lent a subtle flavor to the broth. My friend sopped up the broth with his bread like a soup and mused about how odd it seamed having such great seafood so far from New England.

There are also several entrees, including half an Amish chicken braised in Duchesse du Bourgogne beer (imagine a beer flavored with balsamic vinegar; one of my favorites and usually on tap at the bar), served with gratin potatoes and grilled asparagus. There used to be a rabbit dish, but it's either out of season or it succumbed to Americans' strange distaste for bunny. Too bad, it was really good.

In keeping with the very European motif, there is no dessert list, but the cheese plate is an excellent selection of artisanal hard and soft cheeses, olives and pickles. And, of course, there's all that beer.

Hopleaf is at 5148 N. Clark St. They're open Monday through Friday from 2pm to 2am, Saturday from 11am to 3am and Sunday from 11am to 2am. Since it's a bar, it's 21 and over, even to eat. Food is served until an hour-and-a-half before close.

Kim Conte is on vacation and returns next week.

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Comments

brian / June 7, 2004 12:54 PM

The Hopleaf bar is too smokey. I like the beer, but can't stay too long without feeling the ashtray love.

Their Bloody Marys are also fine.

brian / June 7, 2004 12:56 PM

The Hopleaf bar is too smokey. I like the beer, but can't stay too long without feeling the ashtray love.

Their Bloody Marys are also fine.

Andrew / June 7, 2004 2:09 PM

Have you been there since they opened the back? It's entirely non-smoking back there, and even mid-winter the air purifiers did a great job of keeping the air clear. Unfortunately, you do have to run the tobacco gauntlet through the front room to get there.

Naz / June 7, 2004 2:24 PM

Smokey? I guess since I tend to always be in back and like Andrew said it's non-smoking so it's great. I guess the front is smoky but sometimes they open the door so it's tolerable.

The back is great though, spacious, airy, great windows and decor. Good food, good drinks, good times.

j3s / June 7, 2004 4:53 PM

Wow, I'd go just for the chicken in Duchesse du Bourgogne. That's my favorite beer! It's like drinking balsamic vinegar, I love it. And they have it on tap. I haven't been to Hopleaf in a couple years, looks like it's time to head north.

Paula / June 10, 2004 12:40 PM

Having been a regular since the Hopleaf opened its doors and at one time knowing all the bartenders by name (too many new faces recently to keep them all straight), I can honestly say that anyone who says the bartenders are surly (hello Metromix reviewers) usually means that they did something distasteful. Hopleaf is not a 'funny shot' bar, yet I have seen countless misguided people badgering the bartenders to make a Sex on the Beach (or whatever). I have seen patrons tip $.25 after being politely asked to stop noisily playing quarters (so ironic - don'tcha think?). I have even seen a drunken patron hurl a barstool. I would classify the old school Hopleaf bartenders as reserved - they give you respect if you give it to them.

Cinnamon / June 10, 2004 1:59 PM

I don't know Paula. We've been going in there for years and I've only received friendly service from a bartender once. I always tip a dollar per drink, I've only drank beer there, but on several occasions I had a beer slammed in front of me so hard that several drinks of beer splashed out of my glass and soaked my napkin. I've worked food service, I know all about nasty customers and avoid those behaviors. But I know that telling a bartender that I wanted a bottled X instead of a draft X doesn't warrant throwing a pint glass the length of the bar into a trash can. I've kept going back because of the great beer selection, the friendly clientele, and now the great food and friendly servers and smoke-free room.

Andrew / June 10, 2004 2:16 PM

Paula, I've gone to Hopleaf often enough to be recognized by a couple of the bartenders, and I've seen them be incredibly rude to people with no provocation. I love the place, but the bartenders made it unfun on more than one occasion.

As I said, though, that attitude has dissipated considerably since the back room opened and servers were hired -- the latter probably had much more to do with it than the former.

libby / June 11, 2004 11:58 AM

golly. i love this column so much! i'll have to haul my cookies all the way to andersonville and try this place. and hey, the french in french fry refers to the way the potato is sliced.

lynn / June 11, 2004 2:13 PM

No one's yet mentioned a very important fact: Hopleaf is loud. No, make that LOUD. If you want to have a heart -to-heart with a friend, you might want to go on a weeknight, or before 7 on the weekend. Must be all the hard wood (and drunken people yelling their bidness to the entire bar).

Andrew / June 11, 2004 3:26 PM

Lynn, have you visited the back? It's much quieter back there. (Not that I really have to defend the place, but it seems that even after a year, a lot of people don't realize there *is* a back. Just for the record, there's a mezzanine in the back, too, which is usually nearly empty, and therefore perfect for that heart-to-heart.)

lynn / June 11, 2004 5:30 PM

Yeah, Andrew, I have. Problem is, you have to order food to sit back there, and the tables are kinda close together. But I haven't tried the mezzanine...hmmm, I thank you for the idea (but my liver does not). Truth be told, I'd probably be there every night, noise or no, if they hadn't quit carrying my beloved Bells Double Cream Stout.

laura / June 12, 2004 2:07 AM

a couple of months ago I had the most fantastic BLT sandwich at hopleaf. They use a special kind of bacon, I can't remember the name of it, but then they took it off the dinner menu and I was very sad. I was salivating for weeks after it, so I guess I'll have to go their for lunch, hell it's only up the street. The mussels are great.

John / August 12, 2004 12:45 PM

Wow - after reading all of the reviews about the rude bartenders, on this website and on others, I was a little leary, yet prepared, when it came to what service I might encounter. But, I went in there on a Wednesday night and the bartenders were nothing but fast and friendly, and the girl was pretty darn cute, too! Will definitely be back next time I'm in Chicago!

 

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