One is beneath a train station; the other’s beside a gas station. But both restaurants-quirky and unique from top to bottom-deliver the goods, foodwise
The vaniety fare of Chef’s Station: Walleye on a ragoût of sweet peas, corn, and scallions
I love offbeat restaurants-you know, the irresistible ones that don’t quite fit into any scene. Two places have delighted me through sheer eccentricity and unusual twists on popular French-American cuisine-Sweets & Savories and Chef’s Station. They are strikingly different in sensibility, and, as if to add to the intrigue, they have a historical connection.
It’s not easy to find, but the eight-year-old Chef’s Station has a great location inside downtown Evanston’s historic railroad station. You walk through the actual station tunnel, but instead of heading up the stairs to a train platform, go straight and you’ll find the door to a charming bistro tucked in the rehabbed ground floor directly below the Davis Street Metra stop.
The eclectic design is by owner Peter Mills, on hand to greet and chat with customers. His theatrical flair (he’s producer of The Set Gourmet Theater) shows in the table settings: variously colored menu clipboards match the flowers; cloth napkins
and flatware nestle in back pockets cut from old Levi’s. Leather-backed director’s chairs offer comfort to diners sitting under lamps made of copper plumbing. The colorful men’s ties hanging on dowels were bought by Mills for his waitstaff but rejected by them; the curious display gives a clever excuse for storytelling. A mural of the backsides of heavyset ladies adds to the goofiness and sets a light tone for the more serious cooking of Jose E. Romero.
There’s a $50, six-course tasting menu here; it’s just $20 more for five smart, generous wine pairings. No hard liquor is offered, but who misses it with a savvy wine list that includes great values like a fine red 2000 Château Laroque Languedoc Pic Saint Luc Mourvèdre ($24)? Another attraction: foie gras is legal in Evanston. If you crave a seared slab, it comes with roasted peach coulis, cherry confit, and mâche salad. And also with the foie, a waiter always brings out a glass of sweet white wine at no extra charge.
The vaniety fare of Chef’s Station: Maple Leaf duck breast over twice-baked soufflé of wild rice, crab met, and asparagus with grilled oyster mushrooms in pinot noir sauce
Goat cheese tarts make another good French-accented appetizer. On one visit asparagus filled the tender crust; another time the cheesy tart was made with equally good caramelized onions. The creamy wild mushroom bisque was flavorful, but mine arrived poorly heated, causing cool pockets in the rich warm soup. A more lighthearted start is the juicy beef tenderloin mini burger on toasted brioche with baby watercress salad and pomegranate reduction.
The most delightful entrée was an expertly seared walleye on an enticing ragoût of corn, English peas, and grilled scallions with sweet paprika beurre blanc. Fried spinach leaves garnished the fish, but I preferred the less oily side of sautéed spinach with pine nuts. For a homey choice, meat loaf with roasted beef bordelaise and onion confit mashed potatoes topped with fried onions has been on the menu since day one. My table agreed that it tasted like a big flat Italian meatball-a tasty meatball, for sure. If you prefer more elegant red meat, there’s the well-executed New Zealand rack of lamb with rosemary-infused lamb stock reduction and Yukon Gold potato quenelles.
Desserts are nothing fancy, but perfectly pleasant, from a house-made sorbet sampler to a warm chocolate cake with lavender ice cream. A baby boomer crowd appears to have been attracted not by challenging creations, but by the kind of comfortably sophisticated food in a witty setting you’d be happy to go back for. I certainly would.
A skilled winemaker can balance less expensive grapes into a judicious mix. That’s why the best everyday wines are often blends; the result doesn’t suggest a particular varietal, but usually tastes great-as the French have known for centuries. With hearty foods, try pairing any of this trio of California reds. My favorite is the 2004 Trentadue Old Patch Red from Sonoma County ($13), a jammy, full-bodied blend of zinfandel, petite sirah, and carignane. A close second is the spicy, more Italianate 2001 Il Cuore Rosso Classico blend of sangiovese, zinfandel, syrah, and carignane from Mendocino County ($10). Another bull’s-eye: Fess Parker Winery’s spicy anniversary edition 2004 Frontier Red (lot 41; $9), a mix of syrah, grenache, petite sirah, mourvèdre, cinsault, and carignane. Yes, that’s Fess in his Davy Crockett coonskin cap on the label-the king of the wild frontier is now king of the vine.
–D. R. W.
Sweets & Savories is the DePaul area’s French-inspired puzzlement. Its chef-owner, David Richards, boasts a résumé that includes a stint with Alain Ducasse and a three-year gig as chef at Chef’s Station-the spot he left to open Sweets & Savories. Chicago magazine reviewers have dined in this cozy room several times since its April 2004 opening, but only recently has S & S felt like a fully realized restaurant. We always enjoyed the relaxed, no-big-deal feel of the place, but Richards tried to do too much. As the name implies, he focused on his desserts as strongly as his contemporary entrées. But switching toques daily took its toll: uneven execution (an assertive lemon curd tart with a tough crust) and ill-conceived dishes (roasted salmon overwhelmed by blueberry chutney) detracted from other dishes that held real charm. Until now, that is.
On recent visits, the food wasn’t always perfect, but most of it proved very good. The seviche is a fine way to start. Citrus- and poppy seed–scented caviar covers tender morsels of lime-marinated lobster and scallops as well as a couple of shrimp mixed with tomato and mango. Lobster risotto also shines, but my favorite appetizer remains the warm pulled duck leg confit salad with Indiana goat cheese arranged with baby frisée, fennel, and Belgian endive-a bistro-style triumph that successfully balances textures and flavors. Meat lovers will want to move on to the excellent rosemary grilled pork tenderloin with tangy sweet pomegranate barbecue sauce and stick-to-your-ribs corn pudding. I also liked the pan-roasted Alaskan halibut with rich lobster velouté topped with roasted corn butter and baby ‘cress, although the pan-roasted room temperature heirloom tomato slice underneath it all came off as an awkward last-minute decision.
Richards gets a bit infatuated with truffle oil, which keeps showing up-in the lobster risotto opener, a veal and mushroom ragoût with pappardelle and green pea sauce, and even in the mayonnaise on his American Kobe beef hamburger. While we’re on the subject, a Wednesday special of the hamburgers ($10 instead of $17) draws many regulars. I have mixed feelings. The meat is juicy, sure, but there is at least one element too many on the toasted brioche bun. Maybe it’s the truffle mayo or maybe it’s the foie gras pâté that he melts into the beef-or maybe they cancel each other out. I want to try it again now that the foie gras ban is in effect, but I fear Richards will throw in something else like chicken liver mousse. Kobe fan or no, by all means order a side of terrific duck fat frites with tomato date chutney served in a waxy bag. Maybe we can’t have foie gras in Chicago, but we can (so far) still indulge in duck fat.
The vaniety fare of Chef’s Station: Bluefin tuna tartare with avocado wasabi mouse and taro chips
Sweets as well as savories are under control, too. That lemon curd tart, now an on-the-money treat served with delicious blueberry compote, is only one of nine fairly elegant desserts up the chef’s sleeve. I also enjoyed the milk chocolate pecan pie with caramel sauce and Tahitian vanilla gelato, the white chocolate Key lime pie with sweet crème fraîche, and the limoncello cheesecake with raspberry coulis. And just for the fun of it, I tried the raspberry cream soda made with fresh berries topped with more of the vanilla gelato, soft whipped cream, raspberry coulis, a caramel glaze sauce, and a splash of sparkling water. A colleague remarked that the concoction tasted like an old-fashioned soda made with high-quality ingredients-and just got better as the gelato melted into the other components.
The small, convivial dining room has soothing brown-painted walls above wainscoting, framed Euro posters, and reprints of positive reviews prominently displayed. The overexuberant servers must be reading them: you can almost hear the exclamation points when waiters brag about how “adventurous” S & S is-everything is “the best! You’ll love it!”-and they push the seven-course, $60 tasting menu so much that one server didn’t even want to show us the regular menu. (Actually it was a darned good deal; for only $25 more, it’s paired with five wines, chosen by Richards, who created the award-winning wine list at Chef’s Station a few years ago.) On one hand, I wish the waitstaff would cool it; but after popping one of the orange-and-laurel-flavored chocolate truffles that come with the check, I would add some exclamation points of my own.
Chef’s Station–935 Davis Street, Evanston. Appetizers $8 to $14; entrées $16 to $32; desserts $7 to $9. Dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Reservations: 847-570-9821.
Sweets & Savories–1534 West Fullerton Avenue. Appetizers $6 to $16; entrées $17 to $34; desserts $8 to $9. Dinner nightly; Sunday brunch. Reservations: 773-281-6778.