The Other Critics

Vettel Basks in State of Grace; Kramer Checks Out of Boarding House

Bitter chocolate, raw chesnut, persimmon, lemon mint at Grace.
Bitter chocolate, raw chesnut, persimmon, lemon mint at Grace. Photo: Galdones Photography

“If this isn’t the best new restaurant of the year (despite its mid-December debut), I’ll be very surprised,” Phil Vettel says near the start of his four-star review of Grace. What sort of dishes earn it this title? “From the vegetable menu, a study of parsnip puree and gelee, abetted by dried pineapple, raw fennel and tiny nibs of tarragon ice, is as delicate as the glass boomerang bowl that holds it. A root-to-sprout carrot composition offers slowly caramelized carrots, green carrot-top puree and paper-thin carrot chips that look like lace… On the meat menu, there’s a terrific veal-cheek dish with wine-braised endive, black mint and tempura anchovies, and grilled wagyu beef and black trumpet mushrooms with wide ribbons of crispy salsify, mashua leaf and a cup containing a few sips of dashi broth… Desserts pingpong between the menus; sometimes a sweet from one menu will arrive as a bonus course for the other. They’re all so delightful, it scarcely matters which ones ultimately appear.” [Tribune]

Alpana Singh was just nominated as restaurateur of the year in the Time Out Chicago Eat Out Awards, so let’s see what they have to say about The Boarding Houseoh. Well, that’s awkward. Julia Kramer’s two-star review: “This crowd must be here for Alpana, right? Because I doubt anyone here had previously heard of the chef, Christian Gosselin, who cooked at the Sofitel and Bistronomic before Singh plucked him for this project. Nor does his menu immediately invite much interest. Gosselin hails from French Canada, which explains the menu’s Quebecois motif (poutine, smoked meat at the bar) but doesn’t really account for the rest of the dishes, which are a mélange of New American tropes (kale Caesar, hamachi crudo) and something that approximates Continental cuisine (lamb chops, chicken-liver mousse) with disjointed international ingredients thrown in (like cumin, or mango). If I’m flailing here in describing Gosselin’s style, it’s because as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have one.” [TOC]

Heather Shouse is a little more generous to another mega-project, giving three stars to Bub City: “You’ll have a pretty good meal, especially if you stick to the sparkling-fresh seafood platter (blue crab fingers, snow crab legs, raw oysters and shrimp cocktail—a crazy-good value at $25), proper Southern sides like spoon bread, and impeccable banana cream and chocolate-peanut butter pies. You’ll also have a good drink at Bub City, if you go for the impressive cocktails designed by Paul McGee but executed deftly by slammed bartenders… But there are also middling renditions of pulled pork and brisket, and rubbery ribs, the fate of a kitchen trying to get the timing right between its Southern Pride smoker and the constantly packed dining room. Barbecue fiends will have to be patient to see if consistency catches up with potential.” [TOC]

It suits the theme of the Reader’s Valentine’s Day issue— basically, that romance sucks— that Mike Sula reacts somewhat dyspeptically to Table, Donkey and Stick. True, “The preserved meats… dubbed wanderteller (“hiker’s plate”)—are excellent and among the most beautifully arranged in town: a lineup that includes folds of bloodred smoked venison tenderloin with cherry mostarda, iron-rich coins of firm blood sausage, and thin sheets of concentrically stuffed pheasant galantine seasoned with coffee and fennel… But much of the rest of the menu is uneven in execution. I’d settle for a bowl of the long, chewy, spaetzlelike dumplings over the veal sauerbraten they come with, which is devoid of any vinegary tang. Shreds of bland braised beef shank feel superfluous as they conceal silky au gratin sweet potatoes. And a small cast-iron skillet layered with irregular sheets of buckwheat pasta, undercooked potato, and gooey Talegggio is a wet, swampy mess. From a dull, gray turnip soup to a gluey smoked whitefish and white bean salad, too much on this concise menu reinforces old stereotypes of the dreary, heavy food of the Continent.” All over town, people halfway through opening their German restaurant are saying, Uh-oh. [Reader]

Continuing the theme, for Sarah Nardi visiting Shaman, the new Latin restaurant from the owner and chef of Chilam Balam, is like a first date: “Small-plates dining is the equivalent of a first date, when we attempt to communicate the breadth of our personality in a condensed period of time. This is the kind of date where, generally with the liberal assistance of alcohol, we lay it all out on the table, offering lots of little pieces of ourselves in the hope that they can be assembled into a flattering whole… The first two dishes to hit the table were a mahimahi ceviche and a guacamole with traditional garnishes. In theory, it makes sense to open with both at once. But because they were plated identically and dressed with equal hits of palate-numbing citrus, they were essentially indistinguishable. We’d just met, and Shaman was already repeating itself… Maybe I’ll set it up with a friend.” [Reader]

Charcuterie is also one of the few pluses for Sam Worley at Bar Pastoral, who decries choices like “the gobsmackingly bad decision to pair a pretty mild cheese—Crave Brother’s semisoft Petit Frere, not nearly as funky as our server let on—with pickled peppers, against which no nuance will stand.” But: “Amid all the chaos, it’s startling to find a charcuterie menu that’s good across the board. Duck rillettes are served in an elegant cylinder topped with creamy sweet potato puree, creme fraiche, and bits of crispy kale; chicken liver mousse is ultradense but subtly flavored; and country paté is garnished with a chestnut mousse so intense it tastes like chocolate. Nice bread, too.” [Reader]

Lisa Shames has an interesting point about the long journey through many other kitchens that brought John Manion from Mas years ago to La Sirena Clandestina: “I’d say that wanderlust has paid off. There’s a sense that La Sirena Clandestina knows exactly what it wants to be, which in these days of restaurants trying to be everything to everyone, is harder than it sounds… While La Sirena’s compact menu reflects Manion’s childhood spent in Brazil and visits to other South American countries, local, market-driven ingredients come into play as well.” [CS]

Thomas Witom gives three stars to Hinsdale’s CiNe (in the old Hinsdale Theater), helmed by former Sabor Saveur chef Yanni Sanchez: “The trio of empanadas, a popular dish at CiNe, was smartly executed. Each flaky miniature turnover serenaded my taste buds with its delicious combination of flavors… Tacos can be humdrum, but CiNe takes them to a higher plane. Especially good was our shared order (four for $13) of soft tacos with pork confit, sliced orange, cilantro and red onion. A seriously zippy morita chicharron sauce, plated on the side, added extra flavor.” [Sun-Times]

Vettel Basks in State of Grace; Kramer Checks Out of Boarding House