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Review Wed Aug 06 2014
I have a restaurant fantasy that looks like what would happen if Cirque du Soleil, Vegas and Miami got together in a River North hotel lobby, with guests hand-picked out of a contemporary Great Gatsby movie -- shows on the hour, shadowbox dancers, passed champagne, perfect small bites of things on lollipop sticks and silver spoons -- what Untitled might be if it wore designer clothing, kept a clean shave and liked electronica music.
Which brings me to the newly opened mfk, which is nothing of the above, and yet everything similar in sensory appeal and experience -- a place that comes along so quietly and unassuming that reminds us what dining and gastronomy is really about.
Born out of a month-long trip across Spain by husband-and-wife team (and industry vets) Scott and Sari Worsham, and their frustration with Chicago's most recent winter, mfk is their attempt to make summer last forever by bringing the seaside and farm to Chicago via Spanish-driven and simple food, and clean, simple décor.
The space, a mere 700 square feet outfitted in the basement of a former sushi restaurant, is small to say the least. The "chef's table" is a corner shelf that might hold a cocktail and a small plate. Sit anywhere, and you have a full view of the entire restaurant.
At the kitchen is Nick Lacasse, formerly of The Drawing Room. I'm not familiar with Nick's previous work or his signature style, but with the direction of Scott and Sari and his talented kitchen, including sous chef Joey Schwab, he's helped create a well-coursed, acid-balanced menu that uses simple ingredients with great technique to blend rustic with sophistication, all at approachable prices. In short, it's stupid good.
From shrimp heads lightly dusted in cornstarch and flour and fried, perfect for dipping in a salbitxada, a Catalan sauce made with an almond and sherry vinegar base, to briny white anchovies (boquerones) with piquillo peppers and the mild anise taste of fennel, delicately arranged on a crisp baguette, to a single scallop riding the fine line of undercooked, resting atop a pillow of corn milk grits like a pearl in an oyster, the food is all beautifully executed and on point.
A third of the menu, the "From the Soil" section, is dedicated to vegetables, which is unusual for a place that is not necessarily marketing to vegetarians. It is there you'll find Chicago's 2014 tribute to summer on a plate -- cold spring peas and crisp sugar snap peas perfectly cut on the bias, with mint and a simple vinaigrette. Order it with a glass of one of their rosé wines, and you may think for a second, with mfk's soft lighting balanced by the colors of a shy spring, that you were somewhere near the Mediterranean or the upper East Coast, chatting with Ina Garten about herb gardens and dinner parties, even though you were in Chicago's Lincoln Park on a Tuesday night with a raging storm outside.
On Fried Shrimp Heads and Gastronomy
When I left my dinner that rainy night I was inspired by feeling abundant without feeling full, inspired by what food and wine was supposed to offer as an experience beyond just satiation, inspired by finding my Southern culture, Lacasse's coastal influences, and the culinary impression of Spain somehow translated in fried shrimp heads and a bowl of summer vegetables.
Could it really be that simple, I wondered, staring at a blank computer screen, resisting the urge to simply write, "It was really, really, really good." Fried shrimp heads? Spring peas cut on the bias? Singular scallops resting on corn grits. What about the amuse bouche, the edible flowers, the duck fat and sticks of butter?
It really can be that simple.
I'm not a trained chef, and my palate is admittedly better than my home cooking skills, but I am a trained dancer, and over the years I have learned to notice the difference between raw talent and honed maturity when it comes to an artist. The former alerts attention, the latter alerts respect -- the difference between the two is usually grace. And grace usually only comes with a true understanding of the rules of your craft and a conscious decision to return to the basics.
The food and the experience at mfk isn't just well executed and delicious; it's mature.
When you create a menu that only relies on simple, rustic ingredients, you can't hide. What's on the plate, each bite, has to speak multitudes. And to be able to turn something simple and common into haute cuisine experience without the pretense, is truly a place of art, a place of grace.
mfk is that kind of place; it feels sophisticated without being sophisticated and offers a menu that both countryside farmers and urban foodies can understand and celebrate over. It is a place that reminds a city that good food, creative food, doesn't have to be complicated, it just has to be done with refinement, built on a foundation of what culture's and communities, the seaside fisherman and countryside farmers -- the original gastronomes -- have been doing for years. It is a place to have a one-on-one date with courses of small plates, a book (something by M.F.K. Fisher if you wanted to be fully engrossed in the experience) and a crisp glass of Vermentino, tucked underground Diversey on a Tuesday night in your own little private seaside getaway; if only to escape Chicago (even in all its glory) for a minute.
432 West Diversey
Photos courtesy of the restaurant.