I’m probably stating the obvious, but it bears repeating at a moment when every chef in in the city declares individuality by putting an egg on every dish in sight: The best restaurants express something true about the people behind them. They feel personal. Unique. And their customers sense that connection. “The usual should be made unusual,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher, the legendary food scribe, in 1949. “Extraordinariness should cloak the ordinary.” If only restaurateurs still read M.F.K. Fisher.
Sari Zernich Worsham and her husband, Scott Worsham, do. So does chef Nick Lacasse. The three industry veterans—cookbook authors, TV personalities, employees at dozens of restaurants from Charlie Trotter’s to Tom Douglas’s Etta’s in Seattle—christened their tiny Lake View café with Fisher’s iconic initials. That’s like naming your son Einstein: a lot to live up to.
But MFK just feels right. It also feels like no other restaurant in Chicago. In stark contrast to the dark, decadent lairs that cover the landscape, the subterranean room is bright and breezy as an Ibiza twilight. Custom pendant lamps dangle over white brick walls decorated with seaside paintings by Scott Worsham’s old high school buddy John Santoro. Delighted couples share Cantabrian salt-cured anchovies on buttered bread at a bar made from a giant sycamore slab. You can almost hear the waves crashing on the bay.
Lacasse’s cooking hits the right notes without pandering. He dusts prawn heads with cornstarch, fries them up crisp, and drizzles them with a nutty salbitxada (a thick yellow Catalan sauce similar to romesco) for an unctuous, irresistible snack. “Put ’em in a bag and serve ’em at a Super Bowl party,” suggested a hungry companion, who confessed he would think twice about sharing such a bag. The pyramid of Manchego and speck croquettes is a tiny tower of flavor, especially after a dip in the accompanying roasted-garlic aïoli.
When a restaurant trusts its ingredients, I’ll follow it anywhere. Look at the simple freshness in a bowl of cold spring peas and sugar snap peas sparked by feta and mint leaves. It’s every bit as exciting as MFK’s showier stuff, such as the sashimi-grade suzuki seviche (try saying that after a cocktail) with a squid-ink tostada and poblano guacamole. And the kitchen makes heavy use of a chrome-top plancha, which turns the lid of a jumbo sea scallop into caramelized gold and keeps the interior silky. Ringed by pickled Fresno chilies and grounded by corn milk grits, it’s a stunner. At $12 a scallop, it ought to be.
When MFK goes big, it doesn’t flinch. The hulking seafood cataplana harbors untold intensity in a tomatoey stew crowded with cobia collar, ridiculously plump clams, shrimp, fennel, and onions. It’s rich enough to feed two Basque fishermen or four Lincoln Parkers. And while you wouldn’t expect it, MFK’s most satisfying dish may be the chicken ballotine. Ten crisp-edged medallions, each bull’s-eyed with a fatty forcemeat and dabbed with chopped herbs, nestle among jus-soaked roasted potatoes. No one does ballotine anymore, at least not this good.
Dessert consists of one thing only: a slice of Basque cake. I know I’m supposed to love its simplicity—a cookie-like crust, a tiny rum-infused cream layer, a dusting of almond flour on top—but I found it understated to the point of blandness.
That’s the thing about MFK. I keep pardoning its flaws, like the unisex bathroom with the door you can’t lock, the lopsided pace of the meals, and the rib-eye cap so fatty that the entire table shakes as guests saw their way through it. Instead, I remember the cheery warmth of the staff and the summery Hell of a Life, a cocktail of rhûm agricole, sweet vermouth, Campari, and lime that knocked me on my ass. And I vow to return.
The first hint that Boltwood is not like other restaurants is the name on the door. Brian Huston and John Kim named their dynamic market-driven establishment for the freshman wing of Huston’s alma mater, Evanston Township High School. A lovely gesture, though his insistence that the name represents the enthusiasm of a new beginning implies that Huston had a different school experience than I did.
Boltwood has the look, the swagger, and the chops to be the restaurant that downtown Evanston has been waiting for. With its open kitchen, concrete floors, and big windows with sheer drapes, the space is built for high traffic. And a contagious energy charges the one long communal table, which is a nice way of saying it’s louder than warfare.
Though the logical comparison is the Publican, where Huston ran the kitchen for nearly six years, Boltwood does its own thing. And that thing is pretty exciting. Huston’s crew overflows with ideas, changing the menu so often that you might miss quirky masterpieces such as a Technicolor orange brandade wherein the oily salt cod fades seamlessly into piquillo pepper sauce. No matter how many pita triangles you ask for on the side, it’s not enough. A pairing of grilled octopus and orange slices imbues the tender tentacles with a perfect citrus tang to play off fennel and poppy seeds. Who knows how long either dish will survive?
Instead of wading into the porkopolis Chicago’s dining scene has become, Boltwood goes the other way. An impressive bounty of vegetable-dominated options ranges from lightly grilled carrots with cilantro yogurt and Ruby Streak mustard greens to indulgent crispy potatoes in garlic schmaltz. There’s a beet salad with bursting grapefruit wedges and pistachio dukka (an Egyptian spice mix) atop avocado purée, and a broccoli salad tossed with breadcrumbs and white anchovies. Gloriously fresh arugula gets topped with nutty Sartori Parmesan, sweet blackened corn kernels, grilled onions, and a spritz of lemon-chili vinaigrette. These aren’t salads so much as pure expressions of whatever’s freshest right now.
Even the dishes that don’t fit—like the one with garlicky strands of al dente bucatini topped with pecorino and mingled with toothy clams in a tomato and wine sauce—earn their existence. As at MFK, don’t overlook the chicken. Huston’s team crowns an impeccable Slagel Family Farm–raised bird with crispy shallots, plates it with a marvelous colony of grilled kale, and lays it on a bed of spreadable pork sausage in orange chili sauce, which lends an opulent depth to every bite.
Desserts lean to grown-up versions of kiddie treats: a moist chocolate cake with thick Chantilly cream (an upscale Suzy Q) or vanilla gelato sprinkled with peanuts and a hot cajeta (Peanut Buster Parfait). Again, most of the criticisms are quibbles: underdeveloped cocktails, an overcooked shrimp, a black bass topped with so much dark mushroom conserva I couldn’t see the fish, let alone debone it. Though the noise makes communication difficult, the pleasant staff courses out meals flawlessly.
Boltwood, like MFK, is not perfect. But it is boldly itself. And if M.F.K. Fisher were still proffering her handiwork with whisk and typewriter, she’d probably agree that in 2014, that’s pretty extraordinary.