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Cauliflower-parsnip soup with a mini grilled Swiss cheese sandwich at Crofton on Wells
Fickle doesn’t begin to describe the urbanite’s approach to restaurants. Critic or civilian, most of us are trend whores, desperately chasing the shiniest scene for our next high. We abandon Sepia for Graham Elliot, Graham Elliot for Girl & the Goat, Girl & the Goat for whatever’s next, and you can’t blame us. We’re hard-wired to seek out the newest spot so we can have an opinion when the subject arises. That’s what makes places like Crofton on Wells (opened in 1997) and Takashi (2007) fascinating—they quietly soldier on, night after night, without the driving force of the spotlight. In doing so, they teach us something about the way restaurants work.
I recently found a set of dining notes from a wonderful, serene meal I had at Crofton on Wells. “This is a special restaurant,” I wrote, drunk on flickery votives and crisp white napery. “But it’s so low-key, it’s easy to forget.” I noted the empty tables and the high prices and worried for its future. That meal was eight years ago, and I’m still worried. How can a PR-shy restaurant that’s expensive but not flashy and cozy yet unglamorous, where every dish probably ought to be 10 percent bigger and/or 10 percent cheaper, survive for 14 years? Is good food enough anymore?
For Suzy Crofton, it is. Since her days at Cassis and Montparnasse in the nineties (and earlier, at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest, where she worked the line with a young Carrie Nahabedian and an even younger Charlie Trotter), the Rogers Park native has specialized in straight-up dishes that rise above by the sheer force of her will. “I have my own unwritten list of standards that need to be met every time I open my door,” says Crofton. “It’s a challenge to maintain, but that’s what keeps things fresh day after day, year after year.” One might be tempted to call this approach horribly out of step with the times, but Crofton’s creative French-accented American cooking exists apart from trends. A perfect example is an appetizer of caramelized veal sweetbreads with a hash of raisins, onions, and cabbage: luscious, lovely, and utterly guileless. Instead of playing up the spectacle of modern food, Crofton speaks softly and carries a big whisk.
Pick any two unsexy ingredients and chances are that Crofton has at some point in her career put them together in a way that makes you reevaluate both. Take cauliflower and parsnips, for example. Recently, she fashioned them into a soup, an irresistible purée of parsnips studded with chunks of roasted cauliflower, topped by a dollop of cinnamon crème fraîche, and served with a mini grilled Swiss cheese sandwich. Nothing fancy, just great American flavors. No one I know gets particularly excited about cod unless it’s been salted for three days or whipped into a brandade submission. But Crofton pairs a flaky Atlantic black cod with braised Slagel Family Farm pork carnitas, black beluga lentils, and a passion fruit–habanero reduction. The result is unforgettable.
Funny that I use the word “unforgettable.” Because if the wonderful cranberry-maple tart with pink peppercorns, brown butter–pecan brittle ice cream, and homemade cinnamon granola came from some hip Britishy pork palace with an ampersand in its name, we’d be calling it the best new dessert of the year. Instead, it’s just another forgotten treasure on a menu packed with them. The only down notes were sides of flaccid pommes sarladaise (garlic potatoes cooked in duck fat) and muted Werp Farms spinach with cippolini onions. This most recent recession—the third Crofton has endured—forced her to cut staff members, which may explain the painfully laid-back service we experienced. But if the hot new restaurants that we’re currently so jazzed about survive as long as Crofton on Wells, most will inevitably grow outdated—the modern equivalent of chicken cordon bleu. And if there’s any justice, Crofton will still be on Wells.
Photograph: Anna Knott