The Other Critics

Nagrant Goes Full Ooh-La-La For Bavette’s; Tamarkin Says Grace Is Where To Drop Your Wad

Bavette's Bar & Boeuf,
Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, “a debaucherous period piece, something vaguely ’20s or ’30s, of the era where the gramophone gave way to the phonograph.” Photo: courtesy Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf via Facebook.

Michael Nagrant drops four big ones at Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf— stars, we mean, not bills— and calls it “exquisite, one of the very best restaurants to open in Chicago in a while. In what is now a restaurant world of casual dress and shared plates, Bavette’s is the capital.” The reason, as with his love for Brendan Sodikoff’s Au Cheval, begins with well-modulated excess— “The foie gras terrine is encased in a half-inch of glorious fat. Breach this golden blanket of butter, and the duck liver wafts honeyed tones of cognac and a wave of cinnamon and ginger. The accompanying raspberry jam is sticky, intensely sweet and syrupy, like the very best pie filling. The terrine is served with Bavette’s huge boules of mahogany-crusted sourdough, which feature the chewiest crumb… Bavette’s is more than just ruddy cuts of cow. The Au Cheval hashbrowns and their lacy crunch also make an appearance here. Creamed spinach is elevated with the tang of blue cheese. Roast tomatoes are intensely fruity. Fried chicken is juicy to the bone, although the crust is slightly over-breaded. Bits of skin flake over the table when you take a bite, but this is no problem. Really if there’s any disappointment with the chicken, it’s because I’ve had the good fortune to sample the natural cracklin’ crust of the fried chicken served at Au Cheval.” [Sun-Times]

One passage about the $700 tab in David Tamarkin’s review of Grace is all some people will need to hear: “If there’s anything more distasteful to this restaurant critic than spending that kind of cash on dinner, it’s spending it on a dinner that isn’t worth it. So hear this, moneybags: Spend that dough at Grace.” But if you keep reading and don’t just immediately pick up the phone, Tamarkin elaborates why: “Chef Curtis Duffy and sommelier Michael Muser have executed small but key differences between Grace and its fine-dining cohorts, and though these tweaks to the formula are subtle, they add up. The servers don’t talk as much as they do at, say, Next. The room, once the night gets going, is more alive than L2O’s. And overall the experience feels less fussy… Certainly there were tweezers involved in putting these plates together. Certainly molecular methods played a role. But Duffy has done an adept job at hiding all that and bringing his ingredients forward—and he’s done so while sparing us the lecture on the provenance of each herb.” [TOC]

Tamarkin notes the ironic contrast between the hype around Reno and the casual-bordering-on-catatonic feel of it in the morning: “this is a casual place. So casual that when I first visited, at about 9am on a Friday, I wondered if the restaurant was closed. A dude behind the counter acknowledged me with a barely discernible nod and pointed to a pile of menus at the far end of the counter. I ordered bagel sandwiches­ and pastries. The bagels are flat, crusty, phenomenal things that, I swear, carry the flavor of the wood-burning oven they’re baked in. In other words, they don’t deserve to be made into these ordinary, lifeless egg sandwiches.” At night, service is more attentive but “the soul of the restaurant is the same. It’s supremely low-key, like a proper pizza parlor should be. Bottles of hot sauce (one with honey, one without; go for the one without) live on the table like bottles of ketchup and mustard at a diner. The food is very, very good: I ate a mizuna salad with a funky baccalà dressing, and I’d like to eat it again, every day for the rest of my life… The pizza—I got the sausage-mushroom-onion pie dubbed the “combo”—owes a small debt to Neapolitan pies, but is ultimately its own thing, and that thing is soft in the middle and chewy around the edges. It’s satisfying, but it’s not the best pizza in town. It may, however, be the best pizza in the neighborhood, and because that’s the role of a local pizza parlor, that’s good enough for me.” [TOC]

We missed last week that Julia Kramer shot a whale in a barrel: “To review a steakhouse (or, for that matter, merely to dine at one) is to waste no energy considering concept or price. However, it is important to note the room. Del Frisco’s is built around a colossal chandelier and is grandiose in precisely the sort of inelegant way a steakhouse should be. One should also consider the service, which at Del Frisco’s is reasonably good, if a little harried. But ultimately, a steakhouse experience boils down to execution. And at Del Frisco’s, the execution is abysmal… On one visit, I had a serviceable filet, cooked to an uneven but more-or-less average medium-rare, a peppercorn crust attempting to conceal the meat’s lack of flavor. Yet on another, my companion’s bone-in prime rib eye, requested medium-rare, came out medium-well.” [TOC]

If you knew Matt Troost’s work from the short-lived Fianco, you knew Three Aces was a sharp Italian restaurant hiding inside a roadhouse-y burger bar, but Kevin Pang thinks the word needs to get out more widely: “Appreciating Three Aces in Little Italy requires two approaches: one for the burger bar identity locals know it for, and the other, a surprisingly refined Nightwood-esque restaurant waiting to be embraced by greater Chicago.” For the first, he finds it a more grownup alternative to an old favorite: “While Kuma’s will always occupy a special place in my ear canal, Three Aces is more in line now with my kinder, gentler, lowball glass-swirling identity.” For the latter, “I remember how the gnocchi ($16) bore a chewier bite and nuttier taste from the use of rye flour, necessary in the presence of heavy elements like braised oxtails and mushrooms. I for sure remember how that oxtail braising liquid reaches levels of extreme beefiness, tasting like sauce that was reduced in the pan for a week. The pattern I sense is that Troost’s adheres to a classicism evident of his fine dining past, with flavors as subtle as brass knuckles to the face.” [Tribune]

Mike Sula finds that the effort to be part of the “Asian hipster cuisine” trend can be self-defeating at Oiistar: “Yim states that the broth employed in three of the bowls is born of an 18-hour pork bone simmer, and it is an impressive alchemy. In his tonkotsu-style bowl—with roast pork loin, tree ear mushrooms, and a creamy boiled egg—the broth has a milky, almost nutty aspect, like a dark roux, and it carries plenty of body with it. It’s lip-smackingly thick and rich, and if Yim had left well enough alone he’d really have something there. But in all four of his soups the preponderance of seasoning—particularly black pepper and salt—not only masks the bowls’ best qualities, but also tires out the tongue well before one hits the bottom of the bowl.” [Reader]

Checking out Gather, Sula has some duds (a cheeseburger, a dry version of a porchetta sandwich) “But I came away with one indelible memory: an exceptional brandade, the whipped spread of rehydrated salt cod, potato, garlic, and cream, native to the Mediterranean coasts of a handful of European countries. Here it arrives in jar, light and fluffy, crowned with a few fingerling potato chips, alongside a small measure of lemon confit and roasted garlic. But the key to the success of this dish is the warm potato blini that arrive with it, thick, hot, and complementarily fluffy. There’s more than enough supplied to empty out the jar with, so you might find yourself looking for a way to smuggle the remainder out the door. But I bet you can just ask.” [Reader]

Michael Nagrant turns up again, this time in CS with a review of The Lobby. Like David Tamarkin, he praises the roast chicken: “I behold its taut glistening skin and the treelike bouquet of heady smelling herbs protruding from the chicken like a rare religious relic before it’s taken away and a perfectly carved and plated breast arrives flanked by roasted Lady apples, tangles of squash and chocolate-infused jus. A few minutes later, luscious dark chicken meat is delivered in a tiny ceramic bowl. Though it is in many ways a classic roast chicken, the breadcrumb stuffed under the skin of the breast is a smart technique that does the double duty of adding buttery flavor and a contrasting crunch to the soft meat.” But his praise applies beyond chicken, leading him to conclude: “The Peninsula has once again chosen wisely. They have a budding star in Wolen, just like they did with Bowles and Duffy. And, in time, The Lobby has a chance at matching or eclipsing the very best days at Avenues.” [CS]

Our reviews of assorted ramens around town (including Oiistar), Au Cheval and Storefront Company are here.

Nagrant Goes Full Ooh-La-La For Bavette’s; Tamarkin Says Grace Is Where To Drop