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Reviews: Monteverde and Swift & Sons

One chef gets her dream; the other gets his revenge.

Chef Chris Pandel at Swift & Sons; ragu alla napoletana at Monteverde   Photos: Jeff Marini

I love it when people ask if we really need another Italian restaurant, as if Italy were some homogenous little backwater. The country’s cuisine has endless stories to tell. And Sarah Grueneberg, the former executive chef at Spiaggia and a Top Chef finalist, is very good at telling them at Monteverde, her triumphant new West Loop restaurant.

The place makes its intentions clear by selling pasta at the host stand, drying it on racks alongside the bustling bar, and handcrafting it at a station over which a mirror hangs so all can watch the magic. The sheer number of people wandering around the earth-toned space makes it feel like a nonstop party and cooking demo. Though stretched thinner than angel hair, the compulsively friendly servers keep the plates coming, the glasses full, and the customers informed.

And the pasta deserves the hype. Some of Monteverde’s variations are blunt and beautiful, such as the wok-fried orecchiette arrabbiata with head-on Gulf shrimp, tomato chunks, and toasted garlic slivers. Others are understated but striking, such as the puffy packets of tortelloni filled with winter squash and soffrito and sprinkled with pieces of bacon and apple in a rich Parmesan fonduta. A spectacular egg yolk raviolo stuffed with ricotta, kale, and chestnut honey launches into Spiaggia territory.

The rest of Grueneberg’s menu—a roster of snacks, small plates, and massive feasts—lands its own punches. There’s the nduja arancine, three memorable rice fritters stuffed with spreadable pork sausage and tomato and resting in a landscape of olive-oil-poached tuna. Or the fegatini Calabrese, creamy and gratifying fried chicken livers cooked in a fresh tomato sauce and eased into polenta with lima beans and pepperoncini. Potential oddballs—“skate wing schnitzel with caper salsa verde and parsnip mashed potatoes” sounds like the longest, most unfortunate typo ever—turn out to be rare gems. Even humble-sounding offerings such as a mozzarella and ham plate become masterpieces of simplicity. My group layered the buttery Broadbent country ham, cherry tomatoes, moist mozzarella balls, and toasted garlic chips on the doughy rounds of tigelle (a pancake-like bread from Modena) to make wonderful little open-faced ham and cheese sandwiches.

The kitchen also goes big. Witness the ragged glory of the ragu alla napoletana, a $38 mountain of awesome. It consists of a giant tomato-braised pork shank, soppressata meatballs the size of tennis balls, plump cacciatore sausages, and a wall of fusilli rustico. It’s “for the table,” and that apparently means everyone at the bar, too. One of the few misfires was a 23-ounce bone-in rib eye, nearly half of which was inedible—unless you are partial to forkfuls of fat. (Some are, I suppose.)

Desserts such as a Black Forest cake and Berlin doughnuts stray from Italy, but the best, a salted butterscotch budino with a perfect brûléed top and pecan toffee, belongs to no country. The wine list teems with bargains from all over, including a flowery and tropical 2013 Buglioni “Il Disperato” Garganega that was made to be paired with this food.

And Grueneberg, after toiling for years in other people’s kitchens, now has the restaurant she dreamed of. “I came to the realization that I had a culinary vision to share,” she says. “And no matter what may come in the future, nothing will be as important as Monteverde.” I hope not, because it’s the restaurant she was born to run.

 

I’ve not always been gracious to restaurants with Chris Pandel in the kitchen. When he reinvented the urban neighborhood restaurant with the Bristol in Bucktown in 2008, I found it off the mark. (History proved me to be off the mark.) When he opened the homey-chic Formento’s last February on Randolph Street, I called it a misfire. (I’m still alone in this assessment.) And when he teamed with the Boka Restaurant Group on Balena in Lincoln Park, I gave the Boka boys most of the credit.

So when Swift & Sons, another collaboration with BRG, opened on the ground floor of the Google building in the West Loop, I said a little prayer. Whether the intervention came from the kitchen or above, I needn’t have worried. The place mixes creativity with good old-­fashioned predictability in a way even I can’t resist.

The enormous space, formerly a meatpacking facility, has been reimagined as the stylized office of an agribusiness titan, with lots of brass and wood and plenty of playful winks. Cow photos get framed, and a row of clocks indicates the time in Omaha, Sioux City, and other Midwestern beef metropolises. Cold Storage, the daily-catch restaurant-within-a-restaurant, would represent a hugely ambitious operation to most. It’s a scrappy seafood sideshow here.

By countering the familiar with the challenging, Swift & Sons introduces what I call the tartare conundrum. If you’re the type to experiment, you may order the flavor-popping chilled salmon tartare with crème fraîche, charred onions, and a green apple, cucumber, and serrano chili sauce. If you’re programmed to go with what you know, you may pick the chopped steak tartare. But even that has its own agenda: Impeccable beef mingles with shallots and an egg yolk thickened with Dijon mustard, lending the egg an almost lemon curd consistency.

From the 10 steaks, you can get your spot-on 22-ounce caramelized bone-in rib eye or perfectly marbled 34-ounce porterhouse. Or you can veer off the road and find a Snake River sturgeon with white asparagus, salsify, and caviar beurre blanc: a monochromatic masterpiece, equally delicate and decadent. Play it safe with clean-flavored lobster bisque, or take a chance on the oozy handmade celery root agnolotti with pear, chives, and wisps of pecorino. The dichotomy allows you to test your comfort zone.

Whether he’s pushing the envelope or not, Pandel knows how to please. The lamb from Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms includes a gorgeous chop and a thick, crisp-edged disk of shoulder and saddle with soft tarbais beans: a lamb lover’s fantasy. A tingly citrus-poached lobster with Champagne, fennel, and fines herbes has the complexity of a three-star dish. That said, the menu has its disappointments. A $105 beef Wellington for two crams foie gras between bland pastry and lukewarm tenderloin—little more than costly nostalgia. (If you’re set on foie, the stunning torchon with thin sheets of poached pear and quince preserves is everything.)

Meg Galus is among the most whimsical pastry chefs in town: See the Cracker Jack peanut butter mousse thick with salted caramel. Her $14 chocolate platter, a staggering collection of macarons, lollipops, cookies, and all manner of other goodies, alternates between amazing and preposterous.

Pleasant servers know and do it all (a concierge will play a Bette Midler song for an anniversary if you insist). But the desire to please borders on sociopathy, such as when the hostess became the fifth staffer to check on my table on one visit. This, I suspect, is what is required of a steakhouse in 2016: Uphold tradition, push boundaries, and do whatever it takes to satisfy customers. By those measures, Swift & Sons succeeds mightily.

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