That was one of the best meals we have ever had.”
A couple, emboldened by wine and a multitude of stunning courses, wander into the open kitchen at Oriole and proceed to shower the staff with praise loud enough for the whole dining room to hear.
Noah Sandoval, the 35-year-old chef-partner, quietly thanks them. He knows how to take a compliment, having earned a Michelin star at Senza, his gluten-free opus in Lake View. After some pleasant small talk, the couple bring the conversation back to the Meal. Sandoval and his pastry chef–partner, Genie Kwon (worshiped for her desserts at Boka), field giddy questions while members of their team try to hide their glee. Hands are shaken, promises made. Satisfied with the exchange, the couple bound out into the shadows of the Fulton Market district, proud of themselves for loving Oriole before everyone else.
I was not a part of that couple, but I may as well have been. At two months old, Oriole is already a four-star restaurant.
Awarding a new restaurant the highest honor may seem akin to handing a Pulitzer to a scribbling toddler. It’s simply not done, the reasoning being that it wouldn’t be fair to raise diners’ expectations of a work in progress—or something. But Oriole had found its way before it even opened.
Now Chicago just needs to find Oriole. That won’t be easy. Its entrance is in the back alley of a loading-dock side street with that are-you-sure-we’re-in-the-right-place sort of vibe. Then there’s the working freight elevator, all dark and shaky, to pass through. “The rest of the building isn’t allowed to use it after 5 p.m.,” promises Cara Sandoval, the sociable GM and Noah’s wife. From there, the loft-like 28-seat dining room opens up like a feng shui nirvana: plain brick walls, exposed-timber ceiling, two pristine banquettes framing three well-spaced rows of white-clothed tables. At the far end, the open kitchen is wide and welcoming. The gushy couple weren’t the only diners to wander in.
The 15-course meal’s hypnotizing procession of crescendos and curveballs includes a remarkable sourdough bread six courses in and a surprise puffed beef tendon a half hour later. “I like to play a game with the courses,” says Sandoval cryptically. Whatever the game is, three of the courses were merely fascinating; the other 12 blasted the complacency from me until I ran out of superlatives.
The kitchen’s wizardry in balancing textures comes across immediately. The first dish involves paper-thin slices of seared Hudson Canyon scallops capped with dabs of Kristal Schrencki caviar, a rye crisp, and an egg yolk turned into gelato by a Pacojet. It would be criminal to overlook the trace of aquavit gelatin—a crucial flavor that deepens the dish in a nuanced way. And there is no letup: Eight courses later, instead of breadcrumbs, the truffle-kissed fettuccine is blanketed with hand-grated, toasted rye berries.
I am generally distrustful of dishes that require directions. But when our fantastic waitress, Tory Davis, tells us to dip the grilled Icelandic steelhead trout, which is topped with smoked roe, into a lovely artichoke-marjoram broth, I do not hesitate. “Just don’t let it get too soggy,” she says. That I can do. A beautiful Thai-influenced chilled Alaska king crab dish looks like a botanical garden and gets periodic bursts of sunshine from Cara Cara oranges in a milky Vidalia onion soup. The peculiar combination challenges expectations, and only a chef with highly honed taste buds can pull it off.
Anytime I start bloviating about palates, my wife tells me to go eat a can of beans over a campfire. But Sandoval proves again and again that he preternaturally understands the interplay of flavors. “If I think it tastes good, I’m going to be bullheaded about it,” says Sandoval, who rarely uses a cookbook. “That’s the dish.”
We’ve been conditioned to expect showboating from upscale restaurants. Rather than chef himself into a corner, Sandoval takes a far more mature approach. In a riff on a Chinatown classic, the perfectly caramelized Slagel Family Farm lamb belly had been brined for 24 hours and confited for 72, then topped with pickled celery and joined by a semisweet coriander meringue and curled heirloom carrots. No tricks. Just flawless execution and a whole lot of patience.
As the meal bobs and weaves from land to sea to sky, the whimsy grows more charming. When you finish your Kusshi oyster nestled in a tangy Ibérico consommé with finger lime and mint, the platter is removed to reveal a spectacular cache of jamón Ibérico de bellota with candied black walnuts, pickled mustard seeds, and cubes of Campo de Montalban cheese. “You should sneak jamón Ibérico into every dish,” my companion joked to Davis. Beneath the next course—a gorgeous roll of Santa Barbara sea urchin with yuzu kosho, genmai, and smoked soy—rested a tiny sliver of jamón Ibérico. We glanced over at the kitchen, where the chefs put their heads down to keep from laughing.
The closest Oriole comes to gimmickry is Kwon’s pineapple sorbet sealed inside two toasted marshmallows that have been impaled on chopsticks in a vase filled with coconut flakes. It looks like a TV with a melting antenna and hazy reception due to muddled flavors. Otherwise, the creative environment has enabled Kwon to elevate her game, as in the wondrously fluffy pillow of chicory custard with Tahitian vanilla, milk ice cream, and whiskey-orange foam. Inspired by her native New Orleans, it beats anything I’ve ever eaten there.
Drink pairings by Aaron McManus (Intro) veer into some savvy but modest combinations (Bantam’s honey-toned cider Wunderkind with a cheese course; a foresty 2011 Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco with a Mishima rib eye). “Aaron just wants to put the best-tasting drink with each dish,” says Sandoval. “If it’s Boone’s Farm or Dr Pepper, it’s Boone’s Farm or Dr Pepper.” That’s the kind of unpretentious vibe that drives Oriole, echoed by the old-school ska coasting down from the ceiling. The gracious servers seem to genuinely like their jobs and one another, which is good because they’re all married, dating, or friends.
Think of Chicago’s ultimate restaurant openings in recent years, the places that glowed with a formidable confidence from day one: Alinea, Grace, L2O. Now add Oriole to that hallowed list. Without resorting to pyrotechnics or self-indulgence, or pummeling diners with overlong and overrich meals, Sandoval and his tight crew serve a parade of brilliant, beautiful compositions that add up to one unforgettable experience. And they pulled it off from the get-go, without the unbearable hype that usually precedes a restaurant of such caliber. It’s as if a miracle has been smuggled in right under our noses.
“Of course we want Michelin stars, as many as we can get,” Sandoval says. “But right now we just want people to come. And come back.” If this initial blast of inspiration persists, awestruck customers will pour into Oriole’s open kitchen for years to come.