Updated: Apr 26, 2021
As Michelin awards its stars for 2021, the Uptown restaurant finds its center
Brass Heart defines itself as a “post-modernist” restaurant, but it is--and I’m not damning it with faint praise when I say this--much too sincere in its intent and understated in its approach to be outré. The tasting menu includes--with genuinely little irony--amuses, intermezzos, and a cheese course (of a sort); no item on the menu appears in quotes. Foams and soils are cheerfully described as bubbles and crumbles, respectively; no dish is described as a deconstruction.
What it does uniquely possess, and which I hope it continues to hone, is something much edgier: a point of view.
POV in fine dining might be thought of as an identity--but not just any. Lettuce or Entertain You or Hogsalt restaurants have a general personality, of course, in that they focus on a type or genre of food; to have a point of view, though, is to present a singular and/or iconoclastic vision of that food and/or the experience of eating it. Here, chef Norman Fenton’s is focused on syncretism, synthesizing several ideas and idioms into something that feels distinct among the Chicago degustation set. Are the norms and structures of the traditional tasting menu evident? Sure. But so, too, is a sense of playfulness similar to that of Michael Carlson, his former boss when Fenton was at Schwa, most notably in that cheese course, in which the classic Latinx/Caribbean pairing of guava and cheese gets sandwiched bunuelo-style between two fried dough discs and dusted with a powder made from sherry. Does the restaurant spotlight his use of the flavors and terroirs of Mexican cuisine--the herbs, sauces, the huitlacoche? Yep. But it is equally clear that Fenton is at home in the “high acid” school of cooking--that of Contra in NYC and Tom Cunanon’s work at Bad Saint come to mind--in which citrus, herbs, and vinegars are given primacy in order to brighten and embolden; he does not limit himself to one cuisine or style to pursue these big flavors.
If this is a more subtle and less showy approach--without the usual and over reliance on manipulation or luxury tropes--than some other tasting menus in town, it also gifts Fenton and his crew with a significant asset: range. The courses bounce from bite to larger dish and back again; they equally draw from the European repertoire--a foie gras course, a pasta course, that intermezzo--and Mexican regional cuisines, including an early-round aquachile. Often they fuse, most notably in that foie gras course, where a small cut of the liver is right at home with a mole in the style of poblano and dried rhubarb--a peanut butter and jelly for the thinking man.
At the center of this mostly consistent--and mostly excellent--experience is Fenton’s careful attention to the play of fat and acid, with spice and sweetness used for layering flavors. The opening salvo, a play on the pre-prohibition cocktail The Chicago Fizz, presents the tipple both in its liquid form as a homage to the original and made modern in an accompanying solid form, a mix of rum custard, lemon meringue, port syrup, and Pop Rocks-like fizzy crunch that tastes like concentrated sunshine. That aquachile certainly looks and feels familiar--the diced seafood, the avocado puree, the jalapeno water--but the addition of yuzu, pickled cucumber, and a soy cure on the king salmon amp up the acidity, priming the palate while the jalapeno in the broth clears the sinuses. Later, an intermezzo returns the favor, brilliantly mingling micro-leaves of cooling herbs (mint, pennyroyal), sweet and grassy freeze-dried pandan, and candied ginger--a mix of chewy and crunchy the chefs refers to as Dippin’ Dots but whose experience of digging into a bowl is reminiscent of eating a favorite cereal for dinner (and dessert).
Fenton even finds new voice and life in the hoariest of tasting menu clichés: the wagyu main dish, here paired with the unlikely accoutrements of mushrooms and Thai bananas. Connecting the dots? A gel made from shiro kombu, its umami quality heightening the salty and nutty characteristics of the cordyceps and steak.
That beef dish will be off the menu by the time you read this, reimagined to match the seasons and keep pace with Fenton's energy. The front of the house is struggling to keep up with him--in some ways literally. The kitchen plowed through 13 courses in roughly 90 minutes, often leaving little more than 30-60 seconds of breathing time before the next plate came to the table. While the speed is certainly understandable--with a mere 12 seats in the dining room, I assume the operation depends on efficiency in order to execute two seatings nightly--it also made dinner feel more like a sprint than an experience to savor; rushed would be a mild understatement. Some items in the course sequence seem placed more for efficiency than efficacy as such: an oyster that explores the ideal bedfellows brine (the bivalve, trout roe, vinegar) and sweetness (diced passionfruit, coconut cream) can make, for instance, was stuck right before that wagyu dish, a bit too much acidity for a later savory course.
These are correctable errors, of course, and I’m sure issues with comfort and coherence can be worked out with and over time. There just won’t be much of it: Michelin will be announcing its starred restaurants for 2021 on Thursday, and Brass Heart is deserving--and should be expecting--of one. With great recognition comes great expectation; the honor will make it a better restaurant, I'm certain. But Brass Heart soon will no longer be a secret, and the restaurant will have to act as such.
4662 N. Broadway
Chicago, IL 60640