There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately, at least among people who do what I do for a living, that the era of fine dining in Chicago is coming to an end. After years of seemingly unlimited expense accounts (and the credit card balances that supported them) there has been a wave of closings or “re-conceptings” that gives even the eternal optimist pause. It’s been a few years since the Ritz-Carlton closed its hallowed Dining Room restaurant, but they must have seen the writing on the wall: since December, the Peninsula has shuttered Avenues, the Four Seasons has done the same to Seasons (and is now converting the Lounge and Bar areas into a new, more casual offspring); Carlos’ in Highland Park is done, as is one sixtyblue (both are re-concepting); NoMI recently overhauled and was re-born as NoMI Kitchen, while the biggest news of all – that Charlie Trotter’s will close in August, on its 25th anniversary – was something most of Chicago’s food cognoscenti probably never thought they’d hear (except for yours truly, who had a rather uninspired experience there this past fall; I doubt I’ll be invited to the farewell event).
But all is not lost, Fine Diner. In the past few weeks, there have also been a few glimmering signs that there is life after Charlie (and Laurent and Curtis – actually, more Curtis, but more on that in a minute). With the openings of Goosefoot and Acadia, it appears as though some young chefs aren’t quite ready to give up on white tablecloths and inspired service.
At Goosefoot, which sits, rather humbly, along a stretch of Lawrence Avenue that might be charitably described as West Lincoln Square by real estate brokers, but what is more likely to be classified as Albany Park or Ravenswood, Chris Nugent and his wife are rolling the dice on what they believe could be the next iteration of fine dining in Chicago. Nugent has spent the past seven years running the kitchen at Les Nomades, the hallowed French dining salon on East Ontario (which, ironically enough, has just hired Roland Liccioni, the ex-husband of owner Mary Beth Liccioni, who worked there years ago in happier matrimonial times).
The premise at Goosefoot (which refers to a group of plants) is simple: $90 per person for a set, eight-course menu, and a BYOB policy with no corkage fee. Nugent’s food is delicate and nuanced, utilizing the occasional sous vide preparation but countering it with good old-fashioned culinary skills. A beautiful presentation of lobster agnolotti was an early indication he and his staff knew how to cook fish properly, while another course of earthy chestnut soup, hiding tiny nuggets of mushrooms and capped with a milky, truffle foam almost smelled better than it tasted – almost. Nugent gets a lot of use from his tweezers to plate the food, a technique you’ll see quite a bit at places like Alinea and Next. In some cases, the food is so petite – as was the case with the tiny heirloom carrots, carrot “gel” and micro greens from Two Sisters Garden that accompanied a perfectly medium-rare filet of beef – there is no other way to possibly assemble the dishes without the aid of a surgical device.
Just two desserts come with the tasting, the first being my favorite: a small nub of roasted Cinderella pumpkin, no larger than a thumb, coated in nougatine, paired with coffee cream and tiny droplets of merengue; the final sweet included a chocolate puck featuring hazelnut, plus a small schmear of glögg (mulled wine) which offered a note of cardamom that pairs so well with cacao. On the side, a foamy orange cream that reminded me of a creamsicle, and on top of the chocolate, a couple of tiny chocolate-dipped sea beans for a bit of crunch and saltiness I wasn’t expecting.
The night I dined, on a Tuesday, the host forgot to remind me on the phone that it’s BYOB, and when I arrived empty-handed, he offered to go down the street to get me something. He also served me every course, and knew as much about each one of them, down to the bits of tiny meringue on one dessert, that I didn’t even need to ask Nugent about the dishes – although you certainly can; if it’s slow, he’ll stop by your table and chat you up as if you’ve just stopped by his house for a bite.
Some might balk at the $90 per head charge, but when you consider you’re going to potentially save $50 or more on wine, it might lessen the blow. If, however, you’re only there for the food, the final bill might still seem like sticker shock. But there’s no denying this restaurant can hold its own among the city’s fine dining brotherhood; the big question will be, can the folks who dine out frequently support a business that is, in effect, located in the dining equivalent of Siberia?
At Acadia, in the South Loop, there are no tasting menus (yet) and no plans to keep you strapped to your seat for four-plus hours, although if you were so inclined, the beautifully upholstered white chairs would suit me just fine (there’s also no sign out front, so pay attention to the address on Wabash as you’re driving by). There’s a very relaxed formality here. While you’ll see servers bring out dishes from the kitchens on giant, silver trays, they are presented with little fanfare, beyond a simple description from the young, energetic staff.
Acadia was an idea hatched more than two years ago by Ryan McCaskey, who has logged time at Rushmore, Courtright’s (in Willow Springs) and more recently, slinging banh mi sandwiches for the Saigon Sisters at the Chicago French Market. The recession put his plans on hold, but McCaskey soldiered on, becoming intimately involved with every aspect of the design, the lighting and of course, the kitchen. If you don’t like the way this restaurant feels, there’s no one to blame but the chef.
Like most new restaurants of its ilk, there is a serious cocktail program in place, executed by Michael Simon, who has the nattily-attired throwback bartender look down pat: suspenders, check; bowtie, check. He works his magic from behind a rather handsome bar:
As for the food, McCaskey is reinterpreting the memories he had as a kid, spending summers near Acadia National Forest in Maine. So his idea of a Stonington lobster pie is serving it all askew: gorgeous, poached tail as the centerpiece, topped by a tiny disc of sour cream-infused puff pastry, then surrounded by the usual components of pearl onions, carrots and root vegetables. He scatters a few pommes dauphine (mashed potato croquettes) around the dish, then tableside, servers pour a sumptuous, intense lobster bisque around the plate, making it ever so tempting to grab your neighbor’s last piece of bread to soak up every last drop. The “Second” category (a.k.a. entrees) ranged from $25 for a chicken up to $32 for that lobster.
We had been wondering where the bread was, but service here arrives midway between the meal – nice touch, so as not to get too full too early – and the tiny orbs are no bigger than a ping pong ball, arriving with the softest butter imaginable:
From the “First” section (priced between $8 – $15) we tried a few smaller dishes, each its own joyful flavor bomb: the foie gras, served cold, in a torchon the diameter of a silver dollar about an inch or two high, is crowned with a layer of malt that is the texture and consistency of Rice Krispies. Tiny dots of curry apple butter, intensely-flavored lemon and specks of fresh savory and mache lettuce greens accompany the rich little puck. My son, Max, kept pleading for more toast points so he could easily transfer the fatty richness to his mouth:
McCaskey loves risotto, but instead of using arborio or carnaroli rice, he instead has one of his staff cut Yukon Gold potatoes into a brunoise (super-tiny squares), then steeping and cooking them with a leek cream and green apples; winter truffles are shaved over the top, forming an earthy, satisfying blanket:
Another great starter is the pork belly – two generous square hunks served with a tangle of wilted red cabbage and small accents of pickles and candied mustard seeds. A pear mostarda provides some much-needed sweetness, while a couple of tiny chicharrones (fried pork skins) offer crunch.
McCaskey also does charcuterie, but unlike his colleagues around town who simply outsource it to La Quercia or Creminelli, he prefers to make the chicken liver mousse, duck “ham” slices and wild boar terrine himself, offering up tiny accouterments such as fruit preserves, melted shallots and mustard for garnish:
Desserts are wilder than I expected; only three choices were available the night we went. each were $10. We didn’t necessarily love them, but the chocolate was certainly interesting, a soft, custard-like consistency with its random placement of huckleberries and lemon zest. Another pleasant surprise at dessert was the compact list of dessert wines and cordials. Rarely do I see a late-harvest riesling from Cave Springs in Ontario on a Chicago list, and had I not already had the better half of a couple of cocktails and been charged with driving home, I would have certainly ordered a glass.
If you think these two guys are ambitious (and ballsy, considering the economy) consider Curtis Duffy’s horizon: the former Executive Chef of Avenues has been busy working on his next project – Grace – which will occupy a storefront on a revitalized Randolph Street that shows no signs of slowing down over the next year or so. Duffy has said he wants to make this restaurant a world-class destination; a Michelin three star, with no compromises. The opening date is still to be determined.
It’s great to see fine dining is still alive in Chicago, especially in neighborhoods you would never expect to find it – Albany Park/Ravenswood and the South Loop. Some of Chicago’s grand dames may be calling it quits in 2012, but that’s the great thing about our city, we just keep re-inventing ourselves, always striving to improve upon what our predecessors did.
2656 W. Lawrence Ave.
1639 S. Wabash Ave.