Duff's has been a Central West End mainstay for 30 years. Along with Left Bank Books, Dressel's, Balaban's and Llywelyn's, the restaurant has established the corner of Euclid and McPherson avenues as boho baby-boomer central. It's one of the most solid, engaging intersections in the city, and Duff's sits smack-dab in its heart. On mild afternoons and evenings (and weekend mornings -- Duff's weekend brunch is one of the best in the city), Duff's, along with Kopperman's Deli next door and Zoë's Pan-Asian across McPherson, fills the neighborhood with the rumble of a hundred conversations while a parade of former longhaired pot-smokin' freaks, now upstanding members of clubs VW and Land's End, waltz by and contemplate the quirkiness within Rothschild's Antiques before retreating to Bissinger's to gobble fancy chocolates.
For those who like dining outdoors, Duff's has a perfect patio, umbrellaed by trees and Paris-picturesque. Those of us who prefer our meals bugless, though, love the inside: Duff's exudes comfort and feels like your coolest aunt's winter home. All is brick and brown; a few rustic tapestries hang on a wall; a solid, classic wooden bar consumes half the front room.
Diners are greeted with genuine smiles from owner Karen Duffy or someone else who seems equally familiar (the low turnover among the waitstaff is legendary), then led through an archway and into one of the nicest dining rooms in the city, about the size and shape of a racquetball court but made of wood and masonry. Purple checkerboard stained glass glows on overcast days, and a half-dozen simple antique mirrors consume one wall (although they're hung too high for you to double-check your lipstick).
And even when the room is packed with beret-wearing elders, their chatter doesn't interfere with your tableside witticisms; likewise, when the table explodes with laughter -- you're so funny! -- it's not going to annoy the double date at the next table.
However, smokers are relegated to the Addition: the room, about the size of three bowling lanes, that feels like what it is: an '80s expansion. Being sentenced to the Addition is best avoided, not because it's terribly unpleasant but because in dining, context and sense of place are often as important as the food.
Duff's menu is a mess o' influences, a virtual foods-of-the-world tour, which seldom yields sublime inspiration. Restaurants that go this route are often perceived as lacking a clear vision, of creating a menu that loots a cuisine and waters it down with ridiculous or unnecessary variation.
Duff's chef Jimmy Voss has done some parachuting in his time. His entrées and appetizers riff on Thai, French, Italian, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Mexican and Cajun. Voss dabbles in cross-pollination, but he is a versatile chef. More of these riffs were delicious than were duds, and said duds were not so because of poor execution but because the entire concept was flawed. To wit: the appetizer of black-bean ravioli with smoked-jalepeño cream and an avocado-tomatillo salsa.
The best ravioli preparations rely on subtle flavors that massage your buds -- a simple sauce that complements the ravioli filling, which in turn complements the sauce, say, a gentle browned-butter sauce, broth, light pesto or simple tomato sauce. All provide a context without trouncing the filling. Duff's ravioli was crammed with three huge flavors: The black bean stuffing had an urgent kick. The avocado/tomatillo salsa overflowed with the tomatillos' tang and, coupled with lemon juice, was overwhelming. The entire dish was then drowned in the smoked-jalepeño cream sauce, yet another muscular flavor. Combined, it was a bit much.
Other appetizers were very good, although one, the crawfish crab cakes, arrived as crawfish crumb cakes. There they sat, two disintegrating specimens, sad and broken, strewn across a bed of mixed greens topped with remoulade dressing. But I'm fine with a little mess if it tastes good, and these cakes were delicious, filled with bite-size yet distinguishable bits of crawfish, mixed with the requisite breadcrumbs and peppered with cayenne.
The bruschetta di pomodoro was perfect: ear-size ovals of toast supported a creamy goat cheese, which had just enough backbone to give it character but not so much as to overwhelm a bite. On top of the cheese was a tomato-basil relish; the orange, marble-sized tomatoes were wonderfully sweet and flavorful, and the shaved Parmesan added a touch more depth. (It bugged me, though, that fresh shaved Parmesan was used on the bruschetta but dry, horrific store-bought Parma-powder was used on the caesar salad.)
Duff's covers the basics with its entrées: There are pork, chicken, pasta, steak, seafood and veggie dishes. The best by far was the pork chops with apricot mustard, two charbroiled rib chops brushed with Dijon mustard and a hint of rosemary and garlic and topped with the aforementioned sauce. The sweet-tartness of the apricot complemented the sturdy meat, which was grilled to perfection and wonderfully juicy. It was a perfect main course, although the sides were of little value. A green-bean/carrot blend was woefully bland, probably because Voss didn't do anything with the vegetables, simply steamed them a tad and tossed them onto a plate. They didn't even seem to have been salted. The roasted potatoes weren't much, either. They had obviously come from a warming tray, one whose temperature could have been turned up a notch.
The millennium vegetarian platter is Voss's take on Indian food: red curried lentils, a fist-sized samosa, eggplant chutney, a mint raita, some pita bread and a vegetable (the inconsequential green-bean/carrot medley) -- your paint-by-numbers "Indian sampler." It would have been delicious -- these are great flavors -- were it not for one key decision. Voss didn't wrap the samosa in the traditional buttery, fluffy dough. Instead, he used phyllo dough. Phyllo sucks even in Greek food; lacking flavor, the crumby mess that is phyllo has one redeeming quality: its funny texture. So instead of eating a golden bit of fried veggie heaven, we received an unevenly browned, crispy failure.
The kitchen nailed the tournedos Louise, though: Two tenderloin medallions were placed atop grilled portobello mushrooms, which were stuffed with a rich blend of crab and spinach. The beef was tender and flavorful, and the portobellos -- which, when cooked properly, have a steaklike quality -- overflowed with juice.
For dessert, we ascended to the aforementioned cobbler heaven; days later we were condemned to cobbler hell. But we wouldn't trade the bliss of heaven even if it meant swimming in Beelzebub's cobbler for a few millennia, so perfect was the fresh stuff. Equally fantastic was the cherry sorbet, a creamy blend that screamed with flavor.
The food was delivered and tended by a waitstaff that's a force of nature. The service has always been crack at Duff's, invisible apparitions that appear and disappear at will, replenishing water and coffee, sneaking away spent plates. When they're on, which they always are, there's a fluid rhythm: Servers spin around each other but never bump; they communicate with their eyes; they deftly slip the food onto the table.
Thirty years is a long time for a restaurant. Here's hoping Duff's looks into one of those dining-room mirrors: The sins are forgivable, but the restaurant has a ways to go before it's welcomed in heaven.
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