Updated: Mar 16, 2021
What stories will fine dining tell in a post-pandemic world? Spoiler alert: it doesn't know yet either.
Now that Instagram-enabled hustle has seemingly replaced West Loop dazzle as the secret sauce of Chicago restaurant ambitions, wither the Michelin-starred restaurant? Blackbird has closed; Acadia has been 86’d; the direction of others—say, Elske, Elizabeth, a relaunched Oriole—are TBD. A realignment is underway, slow and subtle now but likely to lead to substantive changes in which restaurants and chefs define the direction of the city's fine dining scene.
That the tasting menu will survive in some form during this transition is a given; what it will be, and what it will mean, though, remain uncertain. We are long overdue for a reconsideration of what fine dining has to offer, especially in a post-pandemic world; we've already reconceived and repositioned the role of casual restaurants in the last year, after all. The standouts among the literally hundreds of pop-ups and virtual kitchens conceived during/because of the COVID-19 outbreak are the storytellers: narrative imbues the cuisine of the motherland, BBQ, sandwiches, even pizza. These restaurants are personal; they fit the moment. How can a multi-hour meal of decontextualized bites, built on a 19th century service model and leaning hard on overused luxury ingredients, ever compare?
Short answer: it shouldn’t. Ambitious chefs and restaurants will have to forge new paths, find new ways and forms of expressing their vision; norms and conventions will have to be challenged. Long answer: what stories do they want to tell, and how will they tell them?
Recent visits to two relatively new fine dining restaurants that sprung forth during or right before the pandemic suggest the answers to these questions are not yet clear; neither is who will answer them. Established players, I found, are focused on (re-)finding their footing rather than blazing a new path; the newcomers who may yet change the game are only just emerging. Stay tuned.
On paper, the West Town Portuguese restaurant spins a good yarn: live fire cooking! Ingredient sourcing! Eight kinds of seaweed! Press on the restaurant has highlighted its conservas program and dry aging program, suggesting the imprint of Joshua Niland’s fish butchery, but the ethos here far more closely echoes the work Josh Skenes had been doing at Saison and The Angler in San Francisco: a pursuit of artful naturalism, with fire and preservation the primary tools. With its Iberian bent, there’s nothing quite like it in Chicago right now, at least conceptually.
It’s not yet leaping off the page. Skenes had the audacity to drop minimally treated proteins—smoked uni on toast, a chicken leg with claw attached—and force you to brood on the role and relationship of the chef to his/her product and technique; a run through the tasting menu of Porto in late February, however, found chef Marcos Campos a lot more focused on grasping for stars—you know which ones—forcing you to brood on the value-add of chefs meddling and manipulating. For all the restaurant’s talk of Galician cuisine, this was a particularly Gallic circa the early aughts menu, with an over-reliance luxury tropes (truffles in three courses, caviar in two), dairy-heavy sauces (i.e., an oyster coated in sabayon), and a big protein (duck) to finish. There was even a Paris-Brest for dessert.
Though the technique was largely impeccable—and potentially enough to earn a star—the food consistently lacked the identity and intensity it promised. No smoke. No salinity. No sharpness. A duck breast, brilliantly cooked to a rare- medium rare, bore no trace of its dry aging or the grill, and its fermented plum jus and sunchoke purée accompaniments harkened to a turkey dinner more than I presume intended; mackerel bore the char and crisp skin you expect, but the fish lacked its trademark oiliness and saltiness, and an accompanying squid ink “escabeche” provided little to no acidity in support. An uni and truffle toast lacked the brininess of the former and the earthy funk of the latter; a color/plating play of razor clams and white asparagus conservas, accompanied by seaweed “guac” utterly devoid of seasoning, was more clever than coherent.
There are glimpses of Campos realizing his promise, though. A mid-course study on shrimp, with three different preparations from the same langoustine, found the proper balance among flavors, technique, and product missing from other dishes, finally showcasing the raw material in natural form--the tail bruised ever so slightly in butter and salt to bring out its natural salinity--while showing admirable restraint in allowing the accompanying soup and panna cotta bites to stay savory rather than sweet. Soup seems to be the chef’s thing: an amuse of cream of mushroom soup, silky and smoky, showed what’s possible when the hearth leads rather than follows in his cooking.
The talent and the tools are all here, including pastry chef Shannah Primiano, whose Paris-Brest was a dazzler, the richness of the hazelnut mousse and pastry offset by her smart use of sweet-savory elements (fennel pollen ice cream, beet puree); it also made no sense in the context of a chef and a tasting menu attempting to stylize Iberian food. It made for an apt metaphor of Porto’s formative state: there’s a clear and ambitious story to share, but the restaurant is still figuring out how to tell it right.
Though Ever has not yet celebrated its first birthday, chef Curtis Duffy knows his story--he’s been telling it the same way for at least thirteen years, going back to his time at Avenues. His structure, a 10-12 course degustation, has remained the same through his stints at others’ restaurants (Avenues, Grace) and now his own; even the foundation and spirit of some courses--such as a crab dish, in which the dish elements are separated by a sugar tuile, and a study of in-season vegetable prepared in numerous ways--have stayed the same regardless of year or location. It's the dining equivalent of going to the symphony and all that implies: you dress up; you observe a set performed to exacting standards; and you provide, on the closing kitchen tour, the obligatory cheers to the performers. The process is the product.
The individual instruments are hard to fault. Service is impeccable; the room--even the silent, solemn kitchen--is a dazzler. Duffy and crew are nothing if not diligent and disciplined: they have a formula for getting to three stars and they execute it. Technique is everywhere on the menu, from the three distinct preparations of A5 Miyazaki Wagyu--steak, rillette, chicharron--in the main protein course to parsnips prepared four different ways on an early-meal vegetable dish; the menu highlights--in ALL-CAPS, no less--the distinct herb that supposedly drives each dish.
But notice I didn’t say symphonic earlier: it doesn't add up; there's no alchemy here. My experience with Duffy’s cuisine over the years has left the impression he does his best work in his opening and final salvos, and Ever is no exception: an amuse of little canapes--croquettes, pate choux pastry, soup--built around potatoes is air-tight, clear in their conception as to the straight line to deliciousness the combination of spuds, dairy, and truffle can provide; a knockout mignardise at meal’s end finds caramel coated in finely-shaved truffles, a novel mix of forest floor and sticky-sweet. It’s telling that neither is listed on the menu provided to guests.
Alas, there is little joy on the plates between start and finish, their collective impression polite, muted, boring. Duffy is precise in his protein cooking and his saucing; what he seems to lack right now is urgency and innovation, and much of the menu felt like it was there because it needed to be--to get stars--rather than because he had something to say through his food. The individual elements of the steak dish--from each element of the meat to the celery root puree to the sauce of hoja santa--were unimpeachable, yet together offered no particular profile in texture or flavor; the maitake course that came before it, while a noble gesture at conveying that a vegetable can serve the same function in a tasting menu as meat can, was utterly incoherent, surrounded by a fried potato and a mushroom puree that had no business being there.
And so it went: beautiful, flawless dishes with no identity beyond duty. The footprint of the herbs was subtle, fennel doing much to lift a salmon course that seemed to allude to beginnings of nouvelle cuisine without having much to say about it; however, it mostly vanished to the background elsewhere, particularly on an early fish course that was meant to evoke foundational Thai flavors but whose lime and ginger notes barely registered amid the textural odd combination of intentionally frozen strips of hamachi and creamed black rice. Indeed, texture was a weak spot in nearly all of the savories, with a heavy reliance on softness: no less than six courses featured purees, be it as rice (hamachi), dumpling filling (kabocha squash), or ice cream (parsnip). When you’re leaning as heavily as Ever is on root vegetables and other fall ingredients that may lack bold flavors on their own, variation is key; Ever had little, staying firmly in baby food territory. Only the aforementioned parsnip course, the highlight of the savory menu, pursued playfulness: the dehydrated and roasted roots brought crunch, as did the mousse, which was meringue-like in texture; caviar and leek ash oil brightened the natural sweetness of the vegetable.
The investment Ever has made in the experience it offers is considerable; I have zero doubt it will net them the three stars they crave. But then what? Plenty of restaurants exist purely to maintain their status, be it clientele or rating; Duffy wouldn’t be the first to be content to serve the corporate expense account crowd. Still, I would hope he sees Ever as a chance for evolution, either in the way Enrique Olivera or Rene Redzepi have in redefining how Pujol and Noma, respectively, have pursued their vision, or in the more gradual tuning and retuning John and Karen Shields have implemented at The Smyth, where they’ve found an equilibrium between excellence and accessibility that continues to result in a tasting menu of end-to-end deliciousness. And, as strange as it may seem to say this, he may want to keep watch on his former boss, Grant Achatz: if going only by his posts on Instagram in early March, Alinea appears on the cusp of a rebirth, ready to be more than simply the area’s fine dining pace car. (Review coming on that one later this spring.)
Crystal ball time: I think the answers fine dining seeks lie elsewhere, beyond the traditions of the European model and towards a new hybrid that combines Michelin-level talent with the structure or service approach of non-Western cuisines. Ex-Passerotto chef Jennifer Kim experimented with a pojangmacha format last fall, elevating Korean barbecue with excellent produce, some intriguing Italian elements added to the sauces and meats, and a format that will work a lot better--and be a lot more fun--when indoors rather than a windswept parking lot. Occasional pop-up Banana Phone, operating out of Superkhana, has been running a family-style jokbal dinner notable, too, for its excellent attention to detail, not only for the titular pork trotter braised in dates and star anise but also thoughtful sauces and banchan; excellent ice cream finishes. Tasting India, a virtual concept exploring a different region or idiom of Indian cooking each week, has been executing thalis at a high level, emphasizing both underrepresented cuisines of the subcontinent and flavor profiles--sour, funky, vegetal--heretofore unseen in Chicago Indian food. Hermosa, which has gradually evolved from mere sandwich shop to the city’s foremost purveyor of Khmer food, is serving a killer “family meal” to a single table on Saturday nights: eight courses of bright and herbaceous salads and meats, including an inspired vegan version of nam tok, maybe the single best green curry in the city, and a deeply satisfying double entrée of steak frites (served with sour shrimp paste) and a porchetta infused with green curry spices instead of rosemary and thyme.
These are not "fine dining" options, nor are they trying to be--at least not yet. I mention them to highlight the talent that has emerged over the last year--many without a physical restaurant--and the potential opportunities and pathways they might provide to Chicago’s restaurant scene. Not since the molecular gastronomy moment of 2006-2009, when Duffy and Achatz and others (Schwa, Moto, etc.) made Chicago part of the national conversation on dining, has a group of upstarts been so primed to transform the style and image of dining here. It’s past due and well needed, and I hope at least a few of these upstarts push forward new ideas about what a restaurant meal can be. Stay tuned.
1600 W. Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
1340 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607