Smyth’s 12-course dinner began with drops of sunflower-seed butter and ended with frozen tomatoes. Neither made much sense on paper. Speaking of paper, the crisp sunchoke chip with sea beans and chicken skin that kicked off the meal was served on actual sheets of it. The paper wasn’t edible, but I loved the dish. Two hours later, the unpredictable evening culminated with those frozen tomatoes, in the form of a mousse infused with almond-like notes drawn from cracked peach pits, and some spicy flowers: a deranged good-night kiss. I hated it, though I admired its audacious beauty.
That’s Smyth, Fulton Market’s newest upscale restaurant and the possessor of the ballsiest prix fixe menu in Chicago. The meal includes a course called Seawater, a cup of briny opaque gray broth made from mussels and sea lettuce that are marinated for 24 hours to extract their deep essence. A Salad of Ducks and Herbs, as another course is benignly named, is actually a great but unsettling tableau of pickly braised duck tongues topped with fried duck tongues and roasted squid stock. Equal parts Thomas Keller and Jeffrey Dahmer.
Every dish at Smyth flaunts deep, unforgettable flavors—some discombobulating, others harmonious. All spark genuine exhilaration, like a Halloween haunted house where the knowledge that you’re in no real danger doesn’t lessen the thrill one iota. “We want to create a roller coaster where there’s something outrageous and then something familiar,” says John Shields, Smyth’s chef-partner along with his wife, Karen Urie Shields. “The idea is to keep people on their toes so they don’t know what to expect.”
The Shieldses have veered in some unexpected directions themselves. After falling in love in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s—a workspace about as romantic as a brick wall—John left in 2005 to become Alinea’s opening sous chef while Karen rose to become Trotter’s head pastry chef. Eventually, the two moved to southwestern Virginia, got married, had two kids, ran two restaurants, and lived happily ever after.
Ever after, it turns out, included returning to Chicago and opening two ambitious restaurants in a single 5,600-square-foot two-story space. Downstairs is the Loyalist, which we’ll get to in a minute. Upstairs: Smyth is gorgeous and casual, with no walls separating the warm umber-toned dining room, the service area, and the kitchen. The goal? That elusive dinner-party-in-a-friend’s-home vibe, an atmosphere that the informal, but excellent, servers reinforce. When a customer told John recently that he loved his meal but the service didn’t match the food, the chef responded: “Good. Exactly.”
The question is, What kind of service could complement a beef-fat brioche doughnut paired with sheets of braised cabbage atop caviar, caramelized onions, and sauerkraut? It’s beautiful, brawny, and defiantly un-upscale. When the creations on the plate hit with the peculiar force of the bold slow-cooked saddle of lamb with kelp Marmite and wisps of “mermaid’s hair” seaweed, waiters could dance to the table wearing nothing but a rhinestone fez and a tutu, and I’d be cool with it.
The whimsy on display shouldn’t overshadow the staggering amount of labor that goes into each dish. In a miraculous composition of Dungeness crab with foie gras and scrambled kani miso (crab “mustard” mixed with farm egg custard), the foie gets wet-cured, cut into chunks, poached for an hour and a half, then chilled and marinated in a sea salt brine for three days. The result is something completely new—foie gras with such an astoundingly concentrated flavor it’s almost unrecognizable—and Smyth’s finest effort.
Sommelier Kelly Coughlin’s subversive drink pairings take chances that pay off. Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro, a confrontationally sharp rhubarb liqueur, brings out the full glory of Karen’s inspired dessert of frozen yogurt meringue served atop farro and black raspberry jam and pillowing an egg yolk cured in star anise, salt, sugar, and molasses. Extraordinary surges of flavor with each sip and bite.
Smyth is in the running for the best new restaurant of 2016. It may be only three months old, but I already trust the smart operation to take us all somewhere we’ve never been. Go now and embrace the weird, in case the wonderful kitchen decides to dial it back.
“What’s the story with the chocolate blackout cake?” I asked the laid-back server at the Loyalist, Smyth’s popular downstairs sibling. “Well,” he said with a crooked grin, “if I asked my genie for the best chocolate cake in the world, this is what he’d come up with.”
I don’t know. I think Mr. Laid-Back’s genie might be phoning it in. The pudding-like cake is just so-so. The Loyalist is not half as good as it thinks it is—as a restaurant, anyway—and all the more underwhelming given the magic unfolding upstairs. Maybe I’m too old to appreciate the basement setting, a hard and unforgiving space featuring black walls, black tables, black booths, and ridiculous noise. I do appreciate the menu’s ambitions, which are greater than those of most Bars with Real Food. Any pub that serves grilled squid salad has more on its mind than charcuterie boards. Even the requisite biscuit offering—a terrific, buttery one—comes with nduja butter and ramp honey.
Too often, though, the food fails to set itself apart from the crowd. Glorious fat melts into the aged 15-ounce rib eye with shiitake and black garlic sauce, but the beef’s chalky texture and a side of freaky-spongy Tater Tots spoil the party. A square of broiled seatrout languishes in a flavorless kasu sauce (made with sake lees, the sediment from fermentation) alongside lukewarm, soggy cucumbers. Some dishes aim high but miss, such as the subdued charred carrots dabbed with herby salsa verde and drowning in a pond of béarnaise. Others, such as a decent but predictable chicken liver mousse on sourdough toast, are unimaginative retreads.
Every now and then, a dish finds that perfect middle ground: The moist, crispy chicken thighs covering Carolina Gold rice grits, green beans, and pickled tripe braised in ginger gets it right. And everyone’s going nuts for the Loyalist’s cheeseburger, a patty of short rib, ground chuck, and bacon laid on a toasted sesame seed bun with housemade American cheese, pickled cucumbers, onion-infused mayonnaise, and a drizzle of reduced Marmite. The distinctive result: sweet, absurdly rich, and 100 percent deserving of the hype.
The usual mix of high- and lowbrow beers—Miller High Life if you’re feeling ironic, Half Acre Pony Pilsner if you’re not—hits pleasing but familiar notes. So do the classic cocktails, including the well-made Papa Doble, Hemingway’s old bender fuel of white rum, lime, grapefruit, and maraschino liqueur.
I realize the Loyalist is an attempt to draw the kinds of regulars that Smyth can’t possibly lure. “I didn’t want to put all the pressure on fine dining,” says John. I could see bellying up to the reclaimed-wood bar with one of those Papa Dobles, splitting a luscious lemongrass sundae circled with pickled blueberries and salted black licorice, and considering myself lucky. But that’s as far as it goes. While Smyth may owe its existence to the Loyalist’s nonstop traffic, I wish the chefs’ creative juices had flowed equally into both operations.