It takes a special kind of vision to look at a barren space and see outlandish possibilities. But when the space is off an alley in Evanston and last served as a stable for horses that pulled a fleet of milk delivery buggies nearly a century ago, it’s not vision we’re talking about. It’s lunacy.
Amy Morton’s particular lunacy pays off at the Barn, her four-month-old “modern meaterie.” In 2012, Morton, forever identified as the daughter of steakhouse legend Arnie Morton, won hearts with Found, an antiques-filled standout five blocks away, where Nicole Pederson wowed in the kitchen. Now Morton and Pederson go after Evanston’s soul.
The unforgettable (and nearly unfindable) venue features a 20-foot rustic ceiling hung with a twinkling chandelier, a hayloft lined with a red leather banquette, a living wall of moss, and a strangely mesmerizing photo of an alpaca. There’s nothing like it in Chicago.
Dean Martin would love the menu. Cocktails lean to sloe gin fizzes and French 75s, and an on-the-bone filet mignon with German Butterball potatoes also beckons the retro crowd. Everything drips with a longing for bygone days of guilt-free dining. But Pederson, a Lula Cafe veteran, sprinkles in surprises too, such as a luscious king crab leg in a gentle, buttery red beet broth topped with horseradish relish. For every throwback, like the caviar sandwich—a nod to New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar—she tosses in a contemporary creation, like a bright venison tartare with sweet potato chips, root vegetable rémoulade, and watercress.
Pederson has a knack for zeroing in on pure flavor. Rich dabs of crème fraîche magnify the earthy essence of maitake mushrooms topped with herbed breadcrumbs. Weekly specials—such as Wednesday’s chicken pot pie, in which a wondrously crisp pastry crust somehow encases a soupy velouté without uncrisping—pull off quiet miracles, as do the prime Heritage Angus steaks. They aren’t aged, and it doesn’t matter. The meat around the bone on my 16-ounce rib eye pulsed with an intense flavor amplified by the red wine demi-glace. The Morton blood runs deep.
Sometimes the old-school details feel forced. I’m meant to be charmed by tableside service, but watching a server assemble a middle-of-the-road salad with Little Gem lettuce, Dijon dressing, chopped egg, pumpkin seeds, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and pickled Vidalia onions is less a treat than compulsory nostalgia. Such rituals fare better with the Barn’s best dish: a whole roasted branzino expertly deboned before your eyes and served with baby romaine, wilted leeks, celery, carrots, and lemon-shallot beurre blanc. By dessert, though, when the server rolled a cart over so he could blowtorch our crème brûlée and ladle on raspberries, I secretly hoped it was for another table.
Desserts puzzled me. Why swamp a perfectly wonderful cheesecake with an overpowering flambéed-cherry sauce? A better bet: the dynamite chocolate mousse with whipped cream and candied hazelnuts (best enjoyed au naturel, without the optional boozy sauces: brandied cherries or banana rum).
Amy Morton has become one of Chicago’s great hostesses. She is everywhere in the Barn, schmoozing, troubleshooting, and traipsing up and down the stairs, determined to ensure each table’s pleasure. I bet she gets a lot of steps on her Fitbit.
The Barn is not perfect, but Pederson’s cooking and Morton’s hospitality fill the unique space with an irresistible charisma. The restaurant’s big heart is in the right place—which just happens to be an old horse barn in an alley.