The Frog and the Prince

A goofy-sounding spot in Naperville brings much to the table, while a well-heeled Streeterville restaurant is a trickier proposition


SugarToad’s dining room
 

The Skinny

SUGARTOAD
2139 CityGate Ln., Naperville; 630-778-8623
Model Meal Sautéed sweetbreads and arugula salad, crab cakes, tapioca pudding
Tip Enjoy the quote of the week at the bottom of the menu, such as Voltaire’s “Odd how the English can have 43 religions but only one sauce.”
Hours Breakfast, lunch, dinner daily
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $45 to $50
 

C-HOUSE
Affinia Chicago, 166 E. Superior St.; 312-523-0923
Model Meal Fish tacos, lobster club, suckling pig, Concord grape ice-cream sandwich
Tip Check out the “Tribute to the Masters,” a list of fine crafted wines.
Hours Breakfast, dinner daily; lunch Monday-Friday; brunch Saturday, Sunday
Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $35 to $50

SugarToad? I like it. First of all, that name. Just as pretentious restaurant monikers threaten to float off into the ether, along comes Jimmy Sneed, a nationally acclaimed chef who made it big with a place called The Frog and the Redneck in Richmond, Virginia. Now he’s one-upped himself with SugarToad, an improbably named spot that anchors the new CityGate Centre’s luxurious Hotel Arista. Naperville’s scene is coming on strong, and Sneed, a protégé of the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin, lends it his own goofy charm.

SugarToad refers to a Chesapeake Bay blowfish that crabbers claim is “sweet as sugar and ugly as a toad.” If you’re having trouble picturing such a creature, check out the illustration on a wall of the sleek brown-toned room. While you’re at it, gape at the mural of the restaurant itself with surreal touches such as frogs in chairs and geese flying through the room.

Meals begin with the signature teaser: a juicy nugget of tempura-breaded sugar toad—on one visit, on garlic celery purée, and another time on shallot butter sauce. The regional American menu includes consistently good soups, such as a vividly flavored cream of cauliflower with chopped smoked bacon. Other starters are more adventuresome, especially the “cheeks and leeks,” three grouper cheeks fried much like the sugar toad amuse—and at least as tasty—served on rich braised leeks with lobster coral butter. A friend grumbled about giving up a bite of his sautéed sweetbreads served alongside an arugula salad with mustard vinaigrette and smoked bacon topped with a poached egg. I did share my juicy, crispy pork belly set on collards and shiraz vinegar pork jus. Fair trade.

American Kobe beef dominates entrées. I’m having a hard time choosing a favorite among the three options that feature the top-notch meat: fork-tender braised short ribs with red wine sauce; ultrabeefy grilled flatiron steak with anchovy butter; and elegant “bistro tender” (a filet-tender steak cut from the shoulder), stuffed with chanterelles and finished with shallot sauce. I suppose there are worse positions to be in.

Chef Sneed is considered a whiz at cooking soft-shell crabs, and while they are out of season, you can sense his fondness for the crustacean with the “finally famous” crab cakes. Subtly seasoned, the hefty pair of cakes are mostly fresh lump crab meat, served unadulterated without rémoulade or aïoli and all the better for it. And you don’t often find Carolina wreckfish—delicate deep-water fish that tend to inhabit shipwrecks—which Sneed pan-sears and serves with capers, cauliflower tips, and brown butter. Another menu nod to the South: Virginia wines, such as an Italian-style red 2004 Nebbiolo Reserve from Barboursville Vineyards ($55), which made me smile as much as that bizarre mural.

A lack of imagination diminishes entrée sides. Saffron noodles and buttery baby carrots accompany every seafood dish; all meats get paired with rich mashed potatoes and bacon-studded Brussels sprouts. Not bad, just lazy, and on one visit those potatoes were almost cool. While I’m complaining, the thin-crusted apple tart suffered from undercooked apples. Finish with pudding, though, and you’ll be happy—either the rich banana bread pudding with walnut brittle ice cream or the big-pearled tapioca number. SugarToad is a good restaurant. Once you get past the jokey name and playful philosophy, you realize that the place is deadly serious where it counts—in the kitchen.

* * *

Like everyone else, I was all atwitter at the idea of an exciting Marcus Samuelsson restaurant in Chicago. C-House, in the new Affinia Chicago, is not that place. If the Ethiopia-born, Sweden-raised chef has anything to do with this princely new seafood restaurant, he certainly appears to be MIA. Though he owns (and masterminded) the place, his name is not on the menu, nor was it on the lips of our waiters. But there is a talented chef on hand in Seth Siegel-Gardner, who worked under Samuelsson at Manhattan’s Aquavit and with Gordon Ramsay.

Light tones and leather banquettes with a long communal table define the unassuming but handsome dining room. A massive raw bar dominates C-House’s sharp environs, and the offerings there are a mixed bag. On one visit a few of the clams and mussels from the $65 shellfish tower had a suspiciously strong taste; the oysters were fresh, but every time I slurped one without getting a mouthful of shell fragment, I felt as lucky as if I had found a pearl. And the tower stretched so high that we couldn’t see the top tier; we groped around blindly to snare whatever lurked up there. Like fishing in the dark.

Much better are the C-House Tastes, collections of nibbles such as the scrumptious salmon pastrami with caramelized cream cheese; cobia slices with whipped coconut purée; and terrific signature fish tacos—teensy crisp taco shells filled with zesty yellowtail seviche. After snacking on these goodies, you might find one of the small plates sufficient: say, the lobster club with bacon-flavored brioche and avocado. This rich little sandwich comes with skinny fries in a paper cone and a cup of terrific house-made ketchup seasoned with Ethiopian berbere spice—the first obvious hint of Samuelsson’s involvement—plus a dish holding lively pickled vegetables and baby mushrooms. An excellent 2007 Australian Betts and Scholl riesling ($64) makes the perfect match.

If you want to go all out, investigate the pan-seared skate entrée painted with a sweet soy glaze and paired with broccoli florets, puréed cauliflower, pickled curried cauliflower tempura, and crème fraîche mixed with a little paddlefish caviar. Sounds busy, but it works. Or stick to land, where you’ll find a juicy suckling pig served as tender chops and a chunk of crackly skinned shoulder with peach chutney and upland cress.

Playful desserts abound, such as the refreshing Concord grape ice-cream sandwich, with layers of grape ice cream and goat cheese between caramel-flavored toasts, served on grape caramel. You can also choose from an assortment of chocolates, confections, and cookies. I’m hooked on the pumpkin nut caramels and pistachio brittle and enjoy them with a cup of frothy hot chocolate topped by house-made marshmallows or whipped cream and with a shot of liqueur. (BTW: If you have a chance, go up to the heated 29th-floor rooftop lounge for a drink. Stunning view.) With or without Marcus Samuelsson, C-House is not in the league of Chicago’s other new upscale seafood spot, L2O, but it’s a good place for small plates. Order accordingly.

 

Related:

Front Burner: Jimmy Sneed »
Video: Jimmy Sneed makes his Pan-Crusted Scallops with Lobster Coral Butter Sauce

 

Photograph: Kendall Karmanian

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