You hear it every time another mediocre restaurant opens in Hyde Park: Oh, well. Beggars can’t be choosers. We’re talking about a neighborhood full of intelligent, demanding people—professors, artists, doctors—all so reconciled to their life in dining Siberia that they settle for whatever half-baked bones get thrown their way or they head north. Such is the fate of the Hyde Parker.
That knee-jerk resignation was supposed to end with East 53rd Street’s commercial development, driven by the University of Chicago and anchored by A10 and the Promontory. Everyone’s still waiting on the Promontory, a “hearth-focused” restaurant and music venue from the Longman & Eagle folks. For now, the heavy lifting falls to A10, which faces the highest hopes that Hyde Park has had since, you know, ever.
The neighbors have a right to be optimistic: A10’s owner, Matthias Merges, receives heaps of acclaim and scads of business at Yusho in Avondale and Billy Sunday in Logan Square, and with its gorgeous tapestries and mosaic floors, his latest venture looks terrific. The concept—influenced by and named for the impossibly picturesque motorway that runs through the mountains of the Côte d’Azur to the Italian Riviera—sounds promising.
A10’s chef, John Vermiglio, delivers best on that promise with rays of coastal sunshine such as crispy-fluffy salted cod croquettes painted with aïoli and luxuriating on thin pepperoncini slices. You can taste the confidence in a clever chicken liver mousse topped with royal trumpet mushrooms and a Marsala gelée. And you will ask for extra homemade saltines flavored with olive oil because you recognize quality.
There is no denying this crew’s got guts. An uncompromising boudin noir (a grainy blood sausage) with squid, pickled tentacles, and an ink-vinaigrette-smeared hollandaise reads more like a dare than a dish. Other offerings veer off the Euro road, such as an assertive Caesar-inspired salad stocked with fried Great Lakes smelt or the hearty duck breast with leg confit, braised cabbage, red wine, cooked raisins, and some sort of mashed-potato egg roll. Neither quite fits in, but they’re lovely diversions. And the double pork chop, a juicy smoked Berkshire beast with a crisp exterior, bright apple caponata, and flaky sage leaves, seems plucked from a restaurant where they present the meat right out front to show what sort of carnage you’re getting into.
The drinks program, led by the Billy Sunday bar stud Alex Bachman and the former Alinea sommelier Richard Richardson, makes a strong showing with cocktail standards, such as the stiff, absinthe-kissed Corpse Reviver No. 2 and an impressively eclectic wine list. Desserts lean to fun stuff like olive oil doughnuts and a deconstructed cannoli soft-serve ice cream.
But, alas, A10 is not ready to be Hyde Park’s savior. The whole operation undermines its promise by swerving into new-restaurant potholes: oversalted dishes (seared Maine sea scallops), exceedingly precious ones (focaccia pizza with persimmons, spinach, Gorgonzola, and pignoli nuts), and pacing that lags longer than an airport layover. Affable servers, while jazzed to be part of the neighborhood’s hottest spot, often seem shell-shocked by the throngs. Most troubling, perhaps: The homemade pastas, such as an oily, starchy orecchiette with rapini, anchovies, and Calabrian chilies, need work. Not what you want to hear about an Italian-leaning restaurant.
An old joke in Hyde Park says you can’t hide there and you can’t park there. You can park now, but A10’s valet charges $8 for the luxury. And the first part still holds: Merges may be a talented restaurateur, but an entire neighborhood shouldn’t lay all its hopes on his newest restaurant. Between the team’s smarts and the U. of C.’s bulging wallet, A10 should be in for the long haul, but does it qualify as a destination? Not yet, unless you’re a Hyde Parker.
In Wicker Park, meanwhile, residents can choose from any cuisine they desire without leaving the area; hence they demand more from their restaurants. Or so I thought. Azzurra, Marty Fosse’s blatant knockoff of Anteprima, looks like a retread of his charming Andersonville trattoria right down to the gauzy Italian pastoral scenes, pressed-tin ceiling, and hanging shutters, but without the reliably satisfying food.
Nothing’s particularly wrong with Azzurra, but blandness taints much of chef Katie Kelly’s broad menu. Unlike A10’s salt-happy kitchen, Azzurra’s timid one errs in the other direction, underseasoning dishes until they fade almost into nothingness, such as a dense linguine with clams in dire need of garlic or the grilled marinated shrimp with escarole and pin-size dots of Calabrian chili vinaigrette. One guest said it best after picking over the antipasto sampler, a bounty of marinated olives, cannellini beans, carrot caponata, celery root, and farro: “I keep eating it looking for something yummy.”
Flashes of lightning strike here and there. Dates get stuffed with creamy Gorgonzola, wrapped in crisp pancetta, and eaten quickly. The simple homemade orecchiette, reinforced with garlic and swimming with sausage chunks and rapini, leaves A10’s in the dust. The already-famous starter of Brussels sprouts with zested pecorino consists solely of those terrific crunchy leaves that always fall off during roasting. And when Kelly goes rustic, as with the stew-like slow-cooked lamb shoulder with giant Greek beans, fennel, and tomato, she means it. But pacing problems lead to lukewarm dishes, especially when things get crowded (that is, pretty much always).
A warning: Don’t take your mother. She won’t hear a word you say, nor will you ever hear the end of her kvetching about the noise. The cheery staff engineers a boisterous vibe similar to Anteprima’s, where intertable chatter means you might share a sip of your Bellini or spicy 2009 Querciola Barolo with the nice stranger beside you on the banquette. If she tries to reciprocate with a nibble from the depressingly unimaginative cheese plate, respectfully decline and stick with your unfussy lemon panna cotta.
All this raises some questions: What makes Anteprima a neighborhood gem and Azzurra a relative disappointment? Perhaps what’s charming in one place can only end up feeling calculated when repeated in another. Or maybe something got lost in translation from Anteprima to Azzurra—an odd possibility, considering the two speak the same language. More pressing, though: Once the buzz fades, will Azzurra iron out its wrinkles enough to satisfy Wicker Parkers, who can spend their meal money in a different restaurant every night?