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Restaurant Tue Jun 21 2011
Most publications that review restaurants have a guideline that they don't review a restaurant during the first week or two they're open, because the kinks are getting worked out and why judge a restaurant when they're getting still getting into a groove? Some people disagree, others follow this judiciously; I was too excited about The Black Sheep opening to wait. But I also wasn't sure I'd write about it while they were still warming up.
However, on Friday night, just four nights after they opened their doors to a mostly adoring audience, I had nothing to worry about. I can't quite say that the only kinks were those coming out of the speakers, but I can say that the front of house team was definitely a team who worked together and filled in gaps where necessary. Much like you would expect from a band.
Because I was lucky enough to get the Al Capone seat (in the corner so I could see the entire room), and because I'm nosy and was looking for things to criticize, I did see two instances where food was being delivered to a table that hadn't received the appropriate silverware between courses. And each time, the nearest server jumped to a station, deftly placed eating utensils on the table and then motioned for the food to return. I also saw one other table that ordered the 10-course tasting menu wait an extended period of time between courses -- however wine appeared during their wait, so it may not have seemed as long to them.
And I have no doubt that they felt comfortable sitting in the delightfully posh and yet still punk rock restaurant. The walls are lined with works by local artist Vincent Grech and even a few images by GB photographer and contributor Katie Hovland. The atmosphere is one where one can feel at ease in a pair of jeans and a black band t-shirt or in a suit and a tie.
Every detail was paid attention to. The bare tables are so attractive that I saw more than a few people rubbing their hand across the smooth surface to see if they could feel the texture of the wood. The variegated wood really permits the classic, but modern, bright-white dinnerware to sparkle. The flatware, glassware and dinnerware is more suited to an interior design catalog than a rock'n'roll hangout, but if anyone believes that a rocker can be trusted with nice things, it is Chef James Toland.
He was formerly the chef de cuisine at Lockwood and has been planning this restaurant for most of the past year. His attention to detail, along with that of his dedicated and creative staff, have paid off before you even get settled into your dinner chair. The music choices, while definitely rock'n'roll, recognize that you may want to talk with someone else and they're not trying to drown out noise coming from the kitchen by cranking up the tunes. Chef Toland has created a space that is just as comfortable for any client as it is for him.
But the real judgment of a restaurant often comes down to service and food. Our server Jenna is one of the best servers I've had the joy of being served by. She and all of the other servers looked very punk rock, but acted more yoga. They were comfortably at ease and seemed confident in their knowledge of the food and the menu. This confidence created a smooth service with very few hiccups, and the few I did see were quickly and easily attended to with barely more than a head nod or a smile between service staff. The staff seemed to work better together than at many restaurants that have been open for years.
But not only did she, and every other service member, describe every drop on each of the plates we received during the 10-course tasting with a few amuses, but she did so with ease. She didn't stumble through a memorized list of ingredients, she described our plates like a docent at a museum teaching a student of fine art. The descriptions alone had me giddy before I could place my napkin on my lap.
Before we could decide what to eat, we decided to peruse the drink menu and start with one of their finely crafted cocktails. My partner decided to get the Juniper Sazerac served with classic rye whiskey, absinthe and creole bitters with a hint of juniper demerara. It was just familiar enough to be comfortable and just different enough to be special. Jenna told me that The Black Sheep Manhattan would be the smoothest I'd tried, which is a risky claim, but one that remained true. It was definitely a Manhattan, but not sharp or overly sweet. It was the perfect item to enjoy with our two amuse and tiny popovers.
I knew we were going to be in for a treat when Jenna created our first amuse table-side. A Parmesan crisp, with a dollop of goat cheese, and one tiny microgreen. Delightfully simple, one tiny bite, and a perfect way to show that our food was going to be hand-crafted and beautiful. Despite the rock'n'roll theme, this is no burger joint. (Even though they do have a burger special which I look forward to trying in the future.)
We had such a hard time trying to decide between the variety of dishes that we decided to splurge and get the $95 tasting menu. And I'm glad we did. Almost every course we really wanted to try was on the tasting menu. We did check to see if one dish was part of the tasting; it wasn't, and our server agreed to ask the chef if a substitution would be permitted. He graciously agreed and my dinner partner got to enjoy some of the tastiest snails this side of France. Asking a chef to swap out a dish in a tasting menu is one no-no, asking him to do it during his opening week is another, and yet I did this and I did it on a Friday night during the height of his rush. If you're going to test a chef's patience, why not really test it, eh?
The first several courses were all vegetable-based. We began with "Study of Beets," which truly required studying. There were several different types of beets and each was prepared differently. A beet chip, a pickled beet, a candied beet with pistachio butter and a citron marshmallow. Yes, a marshmallow. I'll be honest and say that I despise the texture of marshmallows. Well, if you've avoided eating marshmallows for 20 years, then this is the time to come off that wagon. Beets + marshmallow = better than it sounds, so much better than it sounds. It was also the first introduction to the chef's eclectic food treatments and styles.
Our next course was a simply dressed sunflower sprout salad. It was light and showed off more of the unexpected food techniques that would continue. A strip of clear Parmesan gellee replaced a grating of fresh parmesan. The freshly cracked pepper that was lightly tossed provided a perfect contrast to the sweet and summery taste of the sprouts. Unfortunately I tried to delicately cut one of my croutons in half and lost it on the seat next to me.
The Mushroom Feast was one of my partner's favorite dishes. And if it hadn't been redundant, it easily could have been "Study of Mushrooms" on this course as well. It was great to try several different types of mushrooms, each prepared differently, and then combine them together in different combinations to see how they brought out flavors in each other. The standout of this dish, and one of the standouts of the night, was a mushroom crisp. The delightful puff more closely resembled the texture of a perfectly fried and fresh pork rind than any mushroom found in the wild or cultivated. Any vegetarian who misses pork rinds, or even bacon, should try this dish. I could have happily ordered a bag of these to go. They weigh as much as a spoon of puffed rice cereal, but they pack more flavor than could appear possible. They finish on a hearty, earthy, smoky note that is more reminiscent of summer barbecue smells, than haute-cuisine.
Our next course was an eel steak with compressed fruit. This is a great transition dish between the vegetable courses and the meat courses. The fruit cleansed the palate, but the eel was meaty enough and yet light enough to not make you regret ordering the tasting. The texture was perfectly crispy and at the same time tender and moist. Just a few bites to make you enjoy the transition. And don't pass up the chance to dip the fruit in the pepper sprinkled on the plate edge. The citrusy zing intensifies the natural sweetness of the fruit.
Next was off the standard tasting for the evening. My partner had crispy snails in anise porridge, which was not any porridge available to any character created by Dickens. My course was very similar, in ingredient make-up only, to one of our standard quick-cook meals. It was Sam Giancana's last supper as described by his daughter, and it is a fantastic quick weeknight meal. Fennel sausage, some escarole, some cannelini beans, garlic and chili flakes. It takes 20 minutes and is tasty, filling and cheap. I like it. However, I think The Black Sheep's version may have ruined this dish for me forever. A small sausage meatball wrapped in escarole and nestled with a variety of beans and broth that was so tasty I was grateful to realize they'd left me a spoon. The extra addition was a few delicate poached mussels that at first appeared to be beans but were full of the delicious broth flavors.
Our next course was my favorite course, no competition. And based solely on the menu description I don't think i would have ordered it at all. A cod fillet sitting atop a pork rillettes, with a "Bacon Royale" cream. People who have dined with me on occasion have seen me occasionally well up with tears when I try a dish. This was one of those dishes. And it wasn't the bacon that made me cry, it was the fish. I love a good potted meat. I look forward to getting the pork rillette at Publican, making bacon into cream sounds like a delightful idea. However, both of these items served to literally and figuratively hold up the cod on a tasty platform of supporting flavors that just made the simple cod shine through. Cod is a fish that gets eaten by the net-full on Friday nights during Fish Fry season. This cod is the regal, royal, and rare cousin of every fried cod sandwich you've ever had. The crispy exterior, the interior that just barely flaked so the hint of a briny sea could be tasted in its depths. I highly suggest this dish, and not just because I want it to stay on the menu until I return.
Our final entree was a delightful play on a Reuben. I hate to say it New York, but this Reuben-inspired course kicks all your best Reubens' asses. And it does it using offal. I'm not a fan of tongue. My partner will get tongue burritos quite happily, but the spongy, rubbery texture and gamey taste I find intolerable. However both of those detractors were negated by corning the beef tongue and then slicing it like you would pastrami. As much as I tend to dislike tongue, I adore sweetbreads. These were among the most tender I've had. They weren't pounded thin, they were allowed to shine in a pan sear. And the mustard sauce and lightly cooked cabbage strips that came with the dish were just enhanced by the rye bread sauce, and they all perfectly melded together to make you feel comfortable tucking a napkin under your chin and making you dig in with both hands.
Thankfully this dish was followed by a light fruit sorbet to cleanse our palettes. It also gave us a chance to order a coffee and a port to go with our final course, which I had sneakily determined involved chocolate. Several different kinds of chocolate in the form of flourless cake, ganache and gelato. Just enough of each item to complement the dinner of varied tastes and textures, but not enough dessert to overpower the food buzz you'd developed. It was the perfect rich end to a perfectly rich dinner. The final eardrum-vibrating strum on a guitar before the chords are silenced, the house lights are turned up, and you're left with a bill and a desire to walk off the evening before you head home.
You likely won't head home with a doggie bag, but you can head home with a copy of The Black Sheep Band's four-song album. It sells at the restaurant for $10 to support Children's Memorial Hospital. It features some of the great heavy-hitters from Chicago's punk and rock scenes. Eric Spicer of Naked Raygun, Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, Gina Knapik of Venom Lords and Slutter, Mike Byrne of the Methadones, and others -- including Chef Toland. If you ask, the chef will sign it and if there are any other band members around, he may ask them to sign it for you as well. You can't really be rock'n'roll if you don't have merch for people to buy at the end of the performance, after all.
Full disclosure: I am friends with Leah Bohannon, Chef Toland's fiance. However, I did not make my attendance known to my friend or the chef before arriving.