It made no sense. Jason Hammel, the unassuming Logan Square denizen who spent 18 years quietly turning Lula Cafe into Chicago’s best neighborhood restaurant, was opening a flashy 115-seat spot called Marisol just off Michigan Avenue in the Museum of Contemporary Art? I couldn’t imagine a hands-in-the-dirt fellow like Hammel—a low-key chef operating on a personal scale—even visiting Michigan Avenue. As he himself put it to me: “Marisol is not a homey restaurant where half the building is falling apart.”
Turns out, the leap from Lula to Marisol makes plenty of sense. First, my notion of Lula as a scrappy underdog was outdated. What was once a shoestring operation is now three constantly packed storefronts. “We can serve 1,000 people a day,” Hammel told me. “So yeah, Lula is a little engine, but it pulls a big load.”
What’s more, just as Lula has always been a living, breathing public space ideally suited to lingering artists—many of whom have displayed their work on its walls over the years—Marisol aims to be more than a high-end showpiece for well-heeled museumgoers. In the morning, the sunny room on the newly renovated ground floor of the museum is a café that serves Metric coffee and freshly baked pastries. At night, a convivial crowd—some of whom are indeed well-heeled—huddles at the marble bar sipping craft beers and snacking on olives. Art, not commerce, seems to have pride of place: The restaurant nods to the environs with its modern white interior, accented by drawings and a colorful mural by British artist Chris Ofili, and with its name—a tribute to Marisol Escobar, the French Venezuelan pop art sculptor.
The space’s previous occupant, Puck’s at the MCA, played it safe to appease hungry tourists rather than making some sort of culinary statement. By contrast, Marisol’s chameleonic menu, like Lula’s, takes chances. If kohlrabi looks good that day, Hammel and his chef de cuisine, Sarah Rinkavage, might compress it and layer it with thin pear slices, endive, white sesame seeds, and grated chestnut to build the kind of gorgeous vegetable-forward tableau that they mastered at Lula. The next day, that dish may be history, and you will instead find shaved Brussels sprouts with smoked whitefish, caramelized poppy seeds, and an orange vinaigrette.
Hammel says the museum’s international clientele necessitates some familiar Continental offerings—like bucatini with pancetta—but he and Rinkavage build delightful surprises into the cuisine, such as the tremendous dry-aged rib steak. They carve the cut into four medallions and rub them with a peppercorn, onion, and salt mixture before searing the meat to form a moodily blackened, smoky-sweet crust. The beef, served with a black currant vinaigrette, is so tender and flavorful it almost feels perverse to dip it in the accompanying creamy bone marrow soubise. Just don’t expect the steak to remain on the menu for long.
The ephemeral excitement of Marisol’s constantly changing bill of fare seems to energize the servers, who exhibit a geeky and chatty enthusiasm. Shortly after the chirpy young waitress delivered our Burrata, which came with persimmon, candied squash, and slices of Texas toast–like bread, she strayed into a conversation about which restaurants she avoided because she’d dated the chefs. She seemed decidedly more Logan Square than downtown, but Hammel’s success at Marisol suggests that such distinctions may mean less than they used to.