It was during the sixth course at Claudia, the new West Loop restaurant from former pop-up darling Trevor Teich, that the meal hit Peak Precious. A line of shaved truffles, tempura escargots, pine meringues, nasturtium leaves, flowers, and spongy green moss fashioned into some kind of biscuit stretched across a plate grooved with concentric rings. It looked like a curated procession of found art on a bisected tree that had been painted white. “Snails in the Woods,” our server declared. “The snails have eaten nothing but basil.”
Normally, I’d laugh at such a pronouncement, or at least wait for a knowing wink or some kind of acknowledgment that the restaurant realizes just how fussy this whole thing is. But the wink never came. And by this point in the meal, I was so caught up in the creativity and flavors, so completely sold on what Teich was peddling, that I didn’t even have to stifle a chuckle.
The dish’s multiple permutations of flavor — crunchy snails with earthy truffle, tart meringue with tarragony dots of a fines herbes emulsion — hit so many pleasurable notes that the brain’s cynicism circuits get shorted. When you learn that the course is influenced by Teich’s childhood memory of freaking out his mom with the things he and his brother found in the woods behind their house in suburban Northfield, you buy it unthinkingly. It’s a perfect dish with a perfect story.
Snails in the Woods was a mainstay at Claudia’s pop-up dinners, legendary feasts that Teich produced for three years in a rented space on the West Side. Now it’s one of the 10 courses on the $185 prix fixe menu at his brick-and-mortar BYO. Teich, 39, rents space in a second-floor conference room in a slick corporate skyscraper (make sure to bring ID — you’ll need to check in at the security desk), so it’s still technically not his bricks or his mortar (and in fact, he moves the tables in before dinner each Thursday). What’s more, the $38,675 that funded the restaurant’s launch in October came from 109 donors on Kickstarter. You’ve got to applaud the chef’s audacity. Then again, he’s onsite seven days a week — and all of his equipment and plates are too, so it’s not like he’s a squatter sneaking in after hours to heat up a midnight snack.
Yet the space still doesn’t feel settled or permanent. The dining room contains tables, an LED bubble infinity wall that serves little purpose beyond messing with your head, and a flat screen with the restaurant’s name on it. That’s all. It’s too bright, the New Agey music a touch too loud. The space is cold, both aesthetically and literally — so much so that the staff gave a woman at the next table a pashmina, but that didn’t cut it, so they scared up a little blanket for her an hour later.
A veteran of L2O and Acadia, Teich has a great eye and a terrifically cockeyed palate. At my meal, he presented four canapés surrounded by moss in a bento box that made it look like the whole thing had just washed ashore. Each bite was a sunken treasure: a scallop cracker with a preserved egg yolk soaking into it; crisp black squid-ink madeleines made from a pancake-like batter; a caviar-topped potato beignet that dissolved on the tongue like a briny cloud; and sushi-grade yellowfin tuna stuffed with silken pâté de foie gras. The umami was electric, and Teich’s attention to detail was exacting: The tiny dot of ponzu on the tuna had taken a month to ferment to his rigorous specifications.
This blend of precision and whimsy continued for two and a half hours. Take the panna cotta. Teich is obsessed with the stuff. He placed smoked trout roe, compressed melon balls, and seaweed across the surface of a concentrated pumpkin version — a sweet-salty combination that exploded, coated my mouth, then melted away, all seemingly at the same time. When spring comes around, it’ll be English pea panna cotta with smoked coconut.
Other courses nod to each other, like the thin cap of al dente butternut squash on the lobster in the fifth course that felt like an extension of the gelatinous passion fruit sheets in the crab lasagna from two courses earlier. Later, there’s the witty Pot-au-Pho: wagyu tenderloin and noodles in an elegant pho consommé, which splits the difference between the French and Vietnamese standbys. The dishes are never boring, though with so much experimentation, it’s not surprising that a few sour notes are struck, like the tasteless seaweed and soy sauce foam that came with an eel course, or the sinewy lobster tail that resisted a moderately sharp knife. But at the usual moment of demarcation for a prix fixe meal — dessert, when things so often get cutesy or go south — Claudia proves its mettle. Thin slices of braised apple straddled bacon ice cream crumbles and a tower of fresh chèvre that caused my jaw, and my wife’s fork, to drop. Teich makes his own goat cheese in small batches, and the result is impeccably tart and smoother than face cream.
So why does Claudia feel more like an experiment than an experience? I suspect it’s because the food never quite coalesces with its environment. At first glance, the room’s striking and impersonal minimalism made sense, suggesting that it had been designed to keep the focus on Teich’s meticulously assembled compositions. But as the meal progressed, the servers — all two of them — and the food began to reveal their warmth and idiosyncrasies, and soon I found myself wondering if the whole operation belonged in another venue entirely. Only later did it hit me: This is the tradeoff. Teich found a way to open one of the most exciting new spots in Chicago without amassing millions of dollars from investors. What’s on the plate at Claudia is red hot, and if I’ve got to sit in a chilly, spartan room to eat it, I’ll just leave my jacket on.