Remember The Far Side cartoon that compared what we say to dogs (a speech bubble with full sentences) with what they hear (a thought bubble with “blah, blah, blah” and, occasionally, their names)? I feel like one of those dogs whenever I go to a tasting-menu restaurant and the server spiels each dish over loud music, listing a dozen arcane ingredients bound up in a story. I nod politely, then ask my companion, “Did she say this was salmon?”

At some restaurants the dishes themselves can be as much of a blur as the word salad that precedes them. But at Cariño, a five-table rabbit hutch in the Uptown space that previously housed Brass Heart and 42 Grams, the descriptions may be long, but the flavors unfold with such clarity that I find myself drawn in nonetheless. Before long I ask the server, “Can we go over this again?”

Chef-owner Norman Fenton, who previously helmed Brass Heart, characterizes his style as “Latin inspired,” but it reads as a meditation on his experiences in Mexico, where he has a wife and child as well as a second restaurant, Wild Tulum, which he also runs with business partner Karen Young. A meal at Cariño means cucumber-jalapeño aguachile with Ora King salmon, a churro unlike any other, and many dishes based on masa ground from corn that Fenton nixtamalizes in the kitchen. He is one of the most technically proficient modernist chefs working today — a man who can tweezer, foam, gel, and encapsulate like no one’s business and create visual art with his dishes. He also seems to have a lot of fun doing so, cooking with a level of maturity and insight that sets him apart. His best dishes forge an emotional connection; you feel them.

Norman Fenton
Norman Fenton

Fenton offers two distinct experiences at Cariño, which opened in December. There’s a tasting menu, available in the dining room or, with a slightly more elaborate upgrade, at his seven-seat chef’s counter. Then he offers a taco omakase, which is served only at the chef’s counter at 10 each night. I love the omakase — it’s delightful and unexpected and bounces along with a pacing and logic unlike any other dining experience in Chicago. The tasting menu captivated me as well, though I was pining for something simple and ingredient-driven for this long meal’s third act. I’m not complaining, just stating a preference. This chef traffics in wow, and each of his courses is a banger.

I don’t want to provide a beat-by-beat account of the tasting menu (that almost feels like a spoiler), but I can say the theatrics here are familiar yet exciting. The surprising whoosh of the dry ice releases a chile vapor that enhances the lively heat in one dish. Another tickles your nose with the lemony scent of white copal resin once its dome lifts.

Beautiful little bites — a tiny triangular tetela bursting with duck confit and smoked sweet potato, a tubular taco dorado holding creamy chicken liver mousse — thrum with flavor. If you’re like me, you’ll melt at the first bite of a huitlacoche raviolo swathed in foamy sweet corn butter and fried corn silk. The textures and tastes sway to the same rhythm, and the tiniest bit of black truffle enhancing the flavor of the corn fungus is as perfect a use of the fragrant truffle as I’ve encountered.

Everyone’s tasting-menu mileage varies, and my tank often starts running on empty about the time the meat courses arrive. That happened at Cariño. I enjoyed the sweetbreads and parsnips in their unusual banana mole chiapaneco once I pulled off the fried plantain strips that capped it like an ill-fitting fascinator. What I really wanted, though, was a steamy tortilla to mop up the sauce. The star culmination of this grand meal was a slice of lamb loin in a tart hibiscus demi-glace, but it was too much by that point for my appetite or my interest.

That may explain why I wasn’t more pumped for Fenton’s wild segue into an elaborate predessert. It’s coffee and churros, but freaky: a warmly spiced café de olla brewed with duck stock instead of water, and a churro with foie gras mousse, mole negro, and raisins. I found it intriguing for one bite, yet six more remained on the plate.

At the taco omakase, however, I relished every taste. Also, though a table in the tiny room is perfectly nice, a seat at the counter facing the open kitchen is far more exciting. You are greeted by a cook wielding a serious molcajete, into which he adds charred vegetables and other ingredients that will make up the night’s fresh salsa. The counter, too, is the place to enjoy one of the not wholly successful but fun riffs on classic cocktails, such as a margarita built around a ball of green ice and a smoky old-fashioned topped with a flaming skull. Two drinks (wine, beer, cocktails, or nonalcoholic beverages) are included.

Wagyu beef taco with salsa de molcajete
Wagyu beef taco with salsa de molcajete

The meal begins with smaller versions of a few dishes from the tasting menu, including that salmon aguachile and a michelada oyster hiding in its Tajín-dusted shell under Clamato spheres and beer foam. The tacos arrive on hot-off-the-griddle tortillas, which are exemplars of form, so nutty and toasty you want to inhale them.

Make that the whole taco you want to inhale. Fenton’s slow-braised suadero, a belly cut popular in Mexico, arrives simply with green salsa and a lime wedge. It’s sublime, one of the best tacos I’ve ever eaten. A batter-fried baton of king crab in an achiote-orange crema inspired by the flavors of cochinita pibil tastes equally of fun and luxury, as does a rare slice of wagyu strip loin in that tart salsa de molcajete. Then there’s a lovely ice cream and fruit coupe with mango and chamoy, and you’re done. One hour.

I left that taco omakase wanting more. Not more food but more of that feeling — that floaty sensation when my mind is racing and my lips are tingling and I realize I’ve just experienced a truly great meal.