Amid the snapshots of kids and food on my phone, I have a dark photo of a bunch of tongues. It’s a dish from the opening menu at Smyth—a gathering of pickled and fried duck tongues in roasted squid stock. The picture looks eerie, perhaps even incriminating, and never fails to freak people out. Also, it always makes me hungry.
John Shields and his partner at Smyth, Karen Urie Shields—who happens to be his wife—are not afraid to be weird. Their shiny West Loop lair sneaked onto the scene last July with four prix fixe menus (four, eight, and 12 courses, plus a spontaneous $275 “symphony”) that showcase unusual compositions and ingredients.
Cracked peach pits? Kelp Marmite? In a lesser kitchen’s hands, this sounds like a one-way trip to Train Wreck Town. But the Shieldses (veterans of Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea) keep Smyth anchored in pure flavor.
Sometimes that flavor takes the blunt form of a warm beef-fat-fried doughnut filled with caviar, caramelized onions, braised cabbage, and onion cream. Other times it’s expressed more delicately. Case in point: Dungeness crab with foie gras that’s been wet-cured, poached, chilled, and marinated, served with a creation called scrambled kani miso (crab “mustard” mixed with farm egg custard)—it’s the best new dish in Chicago.
The combinations bend in unpredictable ways; John has been known to alter dishes in the middle of service. “The cooks say I’m audibling at the line of scrimmage,” he says. “So I say ‘Omaha,’ like Peyton Manning.”
Delightful servers keep meals moving, so diners aren’t too fatigued to enjoy Karen’s fascinating desserts. Her sage-honey tart compresses a flood of adventure into pickled sage flowers and a dehydrated egg, which coat the mouth with a thick, buttery sensation. FYI: If you want the celebrated cheeseburger from the Loyalist, the couple’s popular basement bar, somebody will bring one to you. At Smyth, down is up and up is down.
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