A weird alchemy charges the air at some restaurants, an indefinable something that makes them more exciting and better than the sum of their parts. Davanti Enoteca, the latest Italian opening from the prolific Scott Harris, is one of those places, and I can’t stop talking it up. “Are you as into this place as I am?” I kept asking my guests on my visits, but no one answered. They were too busy eating and taking advantage of the fact that I was not.
As good as Harris’s Mia Francesca outposts may be, they’re never great, which led me to believe that any establishment run by the Mokena native had a ceiling on potential. But after 18 years and nearly 30 restaurants, the man finally has his masterpiece in Davanti. The Purple Pig on the Mag Mile gave us a glimpse into just how good a Harris restaurant could be with the right people (in this case, Tony Mantuano and Jimmy Bannos, Junior and Senior) and the right concept (small, meat-heavy Mediterranean plates).
I prefer Davanti Enoteca to The Purple Pig for three reasons. One: Its retail wine license sidesteps the usual outrageous wine list markups and essentially makes Davanti Chicago’s most fun wine shop. In this context, the $7 corkage fee is less a slap in the face than a peck on the cheek. Two: What feels slick on Michigan Avenue oozes warmth on Taylor Street. Davanti’s rustic décor, with its communal tables of reclaimed wood and lights made from glass wine-storage jugs, looks as though it had been waiting to be carved out of the space for years. And three: Harris joined forces with Luigi Negroni, a veteran of Carlucci in Rosemont, to produce a rich and challenging small-plate menu. Then he got Jonathan Beatty, a former sous-chef at The Purple Pig, to ensure every dish is on target, night after night.
I’d probably be happy hanging out at the bar with a friend, a bottle of ripe 2007 Aia Vecchia Lagone ($28), and a gorgeous wood-fired pizza with foraged mushrooms, braised leeks, Taleggio, and truffle oil. But anyone could pick a couple of dishes at random from Davanti’s offerings and do just as well. The endless categories contain at least half a dozen instant classics—no small feat when it comes to Italian food, which we all think we know inside and out. (We don’t.) “Luigi promised me stuff that you’ve never seen in Chicago,” says Harris, and the Bologna native delivered. The thin, flaky Ligurian-style focaccia, baked and stuffed with creamy melted crescenza cheese, is an obscure dish from an obscure town on the Riviera; with or without the fresh honeycomb spread on top, it’s wonderful. The linguine with sea urchin and crab is like a quick dip in the Mediterranean: bracing and unforgettable. Even salads, which risk fading into the background on this grabby menu, are standouts, like the lightly roasted corn salad with candied walnuts, aged goat cheese, and wild mushrooms. You can go crazy mixing and matching the nine cheeses and five salumi or just listen to your professional yet playful server, who will direct you to a nutty grana padano and top-notch prosciutto di parma with a ramekin of strawberry preserves.
How does Harris, who inherited an obsession with satisfying customers from his carpenter father, cram his philosophy of largess into a fussy small-plate concept? Easy: He makes sure the food is richer than Silvio Berlusconi. A terrific buttery mascarpone polenta, ladled onto a wooden board along with pork cheek ragù, is intense enough to qualify as a meal on its own. Even more decadent is the showstopping truffle egg toast. Envision a thick square of perfectly baked brioche cooked with Fontina cheese and a hollowed-out middle into which the diner whips two raw egg yolks; they soak into the bread but don’t ruin the crisp bed of raw asparagus. Stunning.
I don’t mean to imply that Davanti is perfect. It doesn’t take reservations, the music plays too loud (Tom Petty? really?), and, apart from the thick budino di faro pudding with dates drenched in red wine, desserts disappoint. While I’m bitching, Davanti should ditch the ridiculous oversize wine bottles used as wine lists; servers are obviously embarrassed by them, and they’re too big for the crowded tables. But if it’s truly chemistry that explains the appeal of this narrow space, then I hope Harris and his crew don’t tinker too much with the formula.
Photograph: Anna Knott
Henri, a polished newcomer from the people behind The Gage, serves a side of amaranth, an iron-rich grain that you might find in health food stores. Henri’s is thick, porridgy, and mellow—like quinoa on Valium—and the fact that it’s even on the menu is impressive. But my group left it 75 percent uneaten. That sums up my feelings about Henri: I’m glad it exists, and I admire it, but I’m not in a hurry to try it again.
Billy Lawless has poured a lot of energy and money into his French-inspired venture next to The Gage, and he has taken pains to distinguish it from its boisterous neighbor. All the details are in place, from the biodynamic and organic wine program to the sharp bartender and impeccably groomed staff. The intimate chocolate-toned dining room awash in silk, leather, and velvet exudes the kind of effortless elegance that is rare nowadays. “We’re going for a vintage salon feel,” says Lawless, and this gorgeous room nails it.
Henri’s pricey menu feels like a throwback, too. The chefs, The Gage’s Dirk Flanigan and Christopher Cubberley (the latter a former personal chef to Martha Stewart, which must be the most thankless job on earth), know when to blow the dust off fuddy-duddy fare like beef Wellington, turning it into lobster Wellington with foie gras. They also know when to leave a tender classic alone, like the buttery Dover sole meunière. Some of the modern options coming out of the new kitchen downstairs are pretty good—even dazzling, such as the crisp-skinned, honey-glazed duck breast with duck-confit-stuffed Swiss chard and dense Concord grape reduction.
So why does this restaurant leave me lukewarm? Whether understated by design or simply misguided, much of Henri’s menu falls flat. The bland celery purée with leeks and whitefish and the roasted Florida snapper with poached tomatoes and Parisian potatoes were more muted than a mime convention. I found the stone-oven pissaladières (southern France’s version of pizza) depressing with their overcooked out-of-season vegetables.
Pacing problems don’t help, nor do the little chinks in the armor that surface when you press the staff. When we asked a manager what the fruit part of the fruit au crème was (raspberries and rum-soaked pineapples, it turns out), he blanked. “This is what happens when you manage two restaurants,” he said, disappearing to find our answer. I’m not demanding encyclopedic knowledge, but if you’re going to charge $75 for a slow-roasted lamb for two, know your menu. The last thing you want is for a customer to walk out of your restaurant with a hole in his pocket and an indifferent shrug.
1359 W. Taylor St.; 312-226-5550
FYI Ninety percent of the wood in the room is 180-year-old refurbished barn wood; 180 years is also how long your wait for a table feels.
TAB $25 to $35 HOURS Lunch, dinner daily
18 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-578-0763
FYI Loved the wee crudo of Hawaiian tuna with crisp shiitakes and creamy salted pineapple vinaigrette—a gouge at $15, but a delicious one.
TAB $60 to $75 HOURS Lunch Mon–Fri, dinner nightly
Tabs do not include alcohol, tax, or tip.