I have to get this out of the way: I hate the name Pacific Standard Time. Chicago’s most distinctive restaurants tend to have bold, evocative names: Blackbird. Bellemore. Fat Rice. They sound like mission statements. Formidable, self-confident classics. Pacific Standard Time sounds like a fast-casual bodega between two roller coasters at a California-themed amusement park. And it’s borderline un-Googleable.
As a critic, I understand that ripping a restaurant for its name is, professionally speaking, weak sauce. But the truth is, it’s just about all I’ve got. I can’t think of much else to ding Pacific Standard Time for, other than its decibel level, which these days is like going to a movie and complaining about the dark. Nearly everything about the four-month-old restaurant, headed up by One Off Hospitality veterans Erling Wu-Bower and Joshua Tilden, just feels right.
The cream-toned space is like a very particular vision of Los Angeles, one with pretty plants and pretty people hanging around in equal number. Sunlight streams in through massive windows, coating the restaurant’s 4,750 square feet with good vibes. The terrific cocktail list showcases easy-drinking palomas and tart rhubarb spritzes that taste like what you’d sip while talking up your screenplay at a Hollywood Hills pool party. The open kitchen is home to two hand-built wood-burning hearths: one for breads, the other for everything else. They’re calling the food, not surprisingly, California cuisine, which implies a certain breeziness — you half expect some mellow, sun-creased dude from the Santa Monica farmers’ market to drop by your table, urging you to taste some amazing tomatoes.
The menu’s veggie-forward slant comes across loud and clear in the starters. Think avocado salads with summer squash. Think beet salad with blueberries and yogurt. Think wood-roasted broccoli with oyster mushrooms. Actually, don’t think. If you pause to ponder, say, the bursting-fresh English peas studded with farro verde and walnuts and flanked by mounds of Burrata, your companions will make them disappear before you’ve picked up your fork. Same goes for the wood-fired pita topped with eggplant, roasted pepper, toasted shallots, and dollops of whipped-cream-cheese-like Robiolina. The flatbread’s puffy-crisp crust boasts telltale leopard spots as impressive as any Neapolitan pizza’s, and the labneh anchoring the plate points to the Middle East without making a big thing of it.
Wu-Bower earned three James Beard nominations as chef at Nico Osteria, mostly for his talents with fish. He puts those talents to good use here. The explosively citrusy raw Madai snapper is kept from falling overboard by mellow sunflower seeds and slivers of avocado. Firm swordfish fillets swim in a lemony herb sauce with Israeli couscous and grilled scallions. And the delicate roasted black cod is a praiseworthy composition nested in a fennel purée with little jolts provided by marinated mushrooms, jalapeños, and dill. Michelin will likely take notice of dishes like these.
Impeccable housemade pastas venture as far afield as rigatoni with squid, merguez, and fennel. Impressive, but Wu-Bower’s staff sends off just as many sparks with straightforward, pillowy ricotta dumplings with peas and fresh spinach in an herby spring brodo. I will admit that it’s not clear to me how chicken wings fit into the spirit of the menu. But I will also admit that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. They’re meaty and caramelized and brilliant; funky fish sauce flavor sinks into every nook and crevice, and a purple endive salad with sesame oil provides the perfect chaser.
You could probably just nibble and nosh on such pleasures until closing time, but the menu also includes “collectives,” multipart dishes large enough to share, such as a whole roasted duck production involving kebabs, pita, chickpeas, and pickles. The roasted Slagel Farm rib eye is an impressive piece of meat, charred and sliced, its fat disintegrating into the folds of mineral-tasting pink flesh, the whole of it sprinkled with chives. And those side plates that come with it? One is nothing more than expertly roasted onions and marinated peppers; the other is a smoky grilled wedge salad in a punchy miso bagna cauda dressing — a deceptively complex twist on tradition.
Pacific Standard Time is obviously a good restaurant, and Natalie Saben’s desserts edge it closer to greatness. The former Grace pastry chef transcends the Cali theme with mesmerizing fruit-based creations such as Harry’s Berries Strawberries, the eponymous fruit sinking into a dense halvah-like sunflower cotton cake alongside a scoop of spicy Chartreuse ice cream, tangy oxalis leaves, and a puddle of strawberry syrup. It’s like strawberry shortcake’s evil (and far more interesting) twin. One has the option of adding Regalis caviar to the burnt olive oil cake for $25. Don’t bother. Enjoy the thick, toasted confection gimmick-free as it soaks into lemon curd with silky crème fraîche ice cream and a few fleshy Cara Cara orange wedges.
At times, the staff’s attempt to capture that blissed-out West Coast mood feels a bit strained. Our waiter came on like he’d just dried off after surfing Lake Michigan. And though the meal initially flowed beautifully, when he forgot to put in the fish order and everything came to a halt, the façade quickly crumbled and he turned into a big ball of stress.
As summer flings go, Pacific Standard Time is a memorable one, and I think it could turn into a lasting commitment. Of course, in 2018, sourcing great produce year-round is not novel, nor is seeking out the kind of skilled artisans Wu-Bower cherishes. I have to wonder if the West Coast fantasy will deflate a bit once the wind chill is 20 below and the windows showcase blizzards and slush. Then again, who cares? I’ll close my eyes, start in on dinner, and go to California in my mind.