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October 31, 2008

Gadabout—10/31/08

Happy Halloween! There are five more days until the 2008 election, wherein America will (likely) elect Barack Obama, a Hyde Park resident, to the highest office in the land. Between the pumpkins and presidents, we find ourselves in an uncommon time—for which Uncommon Ground is the perfect place.

Uncommon Ground, with one outpost on Devon Street and another by Wrigley Stadium, shifts easily between the roles of independent coffee shop, music venue, and restaurant. Several cozy rooms unfurl from the woodwork as you walk through, each equipped with toffee-colored wood tables and darker chairs. Enormous picture windows, some framed by white string lights, and large orange lantern fixtures create a pleasantly autumnal atmosphere. Friendly, unassuming service—especially from our uniquely mustachioed waiter—supplements the homey feeling.

Much like the decor, Uncommon Ground’s take on food draws inspiration from the seasons; the offerings, always slightly unusual, change based on the highlights of local ingredients. For the fall, specialties include pumpkin ravioli and accompaniments supplied by apples from local produce venue Seedling Farm. The ravioli ($16) genuinely embodied fall, with sweet pumpkin stuffed inside al dente pasta and doused in a savory sage and brown butter cream sauce. Blue cheese crumbles on top added an exciting kick for a full palate of flavor.

Any menu can propose appetizing dishes, and most can deliver on one or two of their promises. What makes Uncommon Ground so distinct is the excellence in every item. Everything we tried somehow managed to taste as delicious as its description implied. We began with the baked artichoke, pesto, and goat cheese dip ($10) served with fresh basil and four massive crostini. The dip combined pine nuts pureed in olive oil, softened goat cheese, and minced artichoke to produce a haunting creation. Our order of sweet potato fries ($6) had similar enchantment: Each fry managed to be beautifully crisp without being drenched in oil.

Since goat cheese and fries supposedly pack on calories, we made amends through a healthy potato and milk stout soup. Fun fact: Did you know that milk stout, a heavy form of beer containing lactose, was once administered to nursing mothers? We figure between that and serving as grandpa’s cold medicine, the stout in Uncommon Ground’s hearty soup will cure us and our mothers of all ills (except booze-baggery). If milk stout in a soup sounds scary, have no fear; it’s basically the equivalent of Wisconsin beer cheese. This soup had just a hint of milk stout and small chunks of savory potatoes, making it the perfect late fall and early winter dish.

The Millman Burger, at $15, shares the price range of burgers at Sweets and Savories, David Burke’s Primehouse, and Erwin but lacks the cutesy gimmickry. In lieu of fois gras pâté, 45-day dry-aged beef, or oriental spices, the Millman comes with peppercorn bacon, Boursin cheese, and piquillo peppers. It was probably a sign from above that our burger—with its half-pound of beef and bacon—came out not with the French fries we ordered, but with a side salad accented by roasted garlic and tasty vinaigrette.

Uncommon Ground even manages to master the art of the seasonal dessert, definitely living up to its name compared to other establishments. The restaurant makes its own gelatos and sorbets; during our visit, we encountered the whimsical flavors of whiskey, salty caramel, and pumpkin spice. A phenomenal apple crisp ($7) beat out any recipe ever sponsored by Cindy McCain, with its flaky crust and sugar-tossed softened apples. We also tried a pear gingerbread special topped with pumpkin spice gelato that managed to sample every fall spice without overdosing on any.

Though it offers no eyes of newt or toes of frog, Uncommon Ground proved a delightful place to gorge in the fall. It stays on the lower end of upscale and offers options for meat eater and vegetarian alike, yet doesn’t start with Cheesecake or end with Factory. Between the warm atmosphere (and mustaches), the creative menu, and the amazing execution, this restaurant certainly offers grounds to dismiss anything common.