Cauliflower-parsnip soup with a mini grilled Swiss cheese sandwich at Crofton on Wells
Fickle doesn’t begin to describe the urbanite’s approach to restaurants. Critic or civilian, most of us are trend whores, desperately chasing the shiniest scene for our next high. We abandon Sepia for Graham Elliot, Graham Elliot for Girl & the Goat, Girl & the Goat for whatever’s next, and you can’t blame us. We’re hard-wired to seek out the newest spot so we can have an opinion when the subject arises. That’s what makes places like Crofton on Wells (opened in 1997) and Takashi (2007) fascinating—they quietly soldier on, night after night, without the driving force of the spotlight. In doing so, they teach us something about the way restaurants work.
I recently found a set of dining notes from a wonderful, serene meal I had at Crofton on Wells. “This is a special restaurant,” I wrote, drunk on flickery votives and crisp white napery. “But it’s so low-key, it’s easy to forget.” I noted the empty tables and the high prices and worried for its future. That meal was eight years ago, and I’m still worried. How can a PR-shy restaurant that’s expensive but not flashy and cozy yet unglamorous, where every dish probably ought to be 10 percent bigger and/or 10 percent cheaper, survive for 14 years? Is good food enough anymore?
For Suzy Crofton, it is. Since her days at Cassis and Montparnasse in the nineties (and earlier, at Sinclair’s in Lake Forest, where she worked the line with a young Carrie Nahabedian and an even younger Charlie Trotter), the Rogers Park native has specialized in straight-up dishes that rise above by the sheer force of her will. “I have my own unwritten list of standards that need to be met every time I open my door,” says Crofton. “It’s a challenge to maintain, but that’s what keeps things fresh day after day, year after year.” One might be tempted to call this approach horribly out of step with the times, but Crofton’s creative French-accented American cooking exists apart from trends. A perfect example is an appetizer of caramelized veal sweetbreads with a hash of raisins, onions, and cabbage: luscious, lovely, and utterly guileless. Instead of playing up the spectacle of modern food, Crofton speaks softly and carries a big whisk.
Pick any two unsexy ingredients and chances are that Crofton has at some point in her career put them together in a way that makes you reevaluate both. Take cauliflower and parsnips, for example. Recently, she fashioned them into a soup, an irresistible purée of parsnips studded with chunks of roasted cauliflower, topped by a dollop of cinnamon crème fraîche, and served with a mini grilled Swiss cheese sandwich. Nothing fancy, just great American flavors. No one I know gets particularly excited about cod unless it’s been salted for three days or whipped into a brandade submission. But Crofton pairs a flaky Atlantic black cod with braised Slagel Family Farm pork carnitas, black beluga lentils, and a passion fruit–habanero reduction. The result is unforgettable.
Funny that I use the word “unforgettable.” Because if the wonderful cranberry-maple tart with pink peppercorns, brown butter–pecan brittle ice cream, and homemade cinnamon granola came from some hip Britishy pork palace with an ampersand in its name, we’d be calling it the best new dessert of the year. Instead, it’s just another forgotten treasure on a menu packed with them. The only down notes were sides of flaccid pommes sarladaise (garlic potatoes cooked in duck fat) and muted Werp Farms spinach with cippolini onions. This most recent recession—the third Crofton has endured—forced her to cut staff members, which may explain the painfully laid-back service we experienced. But if the hot new restaurants that we’re currently so jazzed about survive as long as Crofton on Wells, most will inevitably grow outdated—the modern equivalent of chicken cordon bleu. And if there’s any justice, Crofton will still be on Wells.
Photograph: Anna Knott
Takashi Yagihashi has stuck to his guns in much the same way that Suzy Crofton has, but he’s also added some fresh ammunition. Like Crofton, Yagihashi came up in the fine-dining world, pulling his weight at Yoshi’s and Ambria in the nineties before striking James Beard gold at Tribute in suburban Detroit. When he returned to Chicago to open his namesake contemporary restaurant in 2007, he received heaps of well-deserved acclaim online, on the street, and in print everywhere from Food & Wine to Esquire. Heck, I named it the best new restaurant of the year in Chicago. But by the end of 2008, Takashi had fallen off my radar. Occasionally, I would pass by the snug Bucktown brownstone and think, Oh yeah, good restaurant—an oversight that says more about me than about Takashi. If local trendies ditched the restaurant, Michelin did not; Takashi received a coveted Michelin star last fall. (So did Crofton on Wells.)
But fine dining’s profit margin is skinnier than a Calvin Klein model, so Yagihashi, the son of two accountants, figured out a better way to pay the bills. First he opened a bare-bones noodle shop in Macy’s; then came Takashi’s Noodles, a cookbook showcasing his acumen with soba, ramen, and friends. “Customers came into Takashi and asked, ‘Where are your noodles?’” Yagihashi says. “I kept saying, ‘Go to Macy’s.’” One of his waiters suggested a Sunday noodle brunch at Takashi, which spawned a regular Sunday noodle dinner last November. Later this year, Yagihashi plans to open Slurping Turtle, an izakaya—essentially the Japanese equivalent of a gastropub—in River North. Talk about using your noodle.
All this enables Yagihashi to pursue his true love at Takashi: synthesizing French technique and Asian flavors into impressive fine-dining compositions. He wraps three big cylinders of moist Scottish salmon in a crispy potato layer and a slice of zucchini, tops them with olive tapenade, and plates them with a fricassee of braised white beans and intense cauliflower curry. There’s enough going on for four dishes. Same goes for the crackly-skinned roasted young pheasant with chestnut risotto, chanterelles, Jerusalem artichokes, and pearl onions—a stunner that would fit in at Everest. As for Courtney Joseph’s desserts, some are better than others. None are better than the cinnamon-sautéed apples, which include a maple-semifreddo-topped pecan shortbread, candied bacon, and a marvelous apple cider sorbet hidden beneath dehydrated apples.
The irony is that Takashi’s noodle dinners are nearly as satisfying as the regular menu, at a fraction of the cost. You’d be hard pressed to find a deeper-flavored udon in Chicago than the niku udon—sliced rib eye, scrambled egg, and fried tofu in the kind of yellowish broth that we always want chicken soup to taste like. And Takashi loads the menu with crowd pleasers such as marinated duck-fat-fried chicken and a pork-belly snack that functions as a sort of deconstructed steamed bun. Two mini masterpieces for less than $10. “It’s a totally different ball game on Sunday nights,” says Yagihashi. “We get people in T-shirts and jeans.” T-shirts and jeans? At a Michelin-starred restaurant? Things have changed, and Takashi, obviously, has changed with them.