January 5, 2016 | BITE: My Journal
Chicago Eats: Intro to Intro
The revolving chef concept at Lettuce Entertain You’s Intro in Chicago provokes corn madeleines.
I’m at that age now when I haven’t much patience. I forced a tight little smile when the waiter asked if we’d been to Intro before and then, inspired by our “No,” whipped into his pitch: “Let me explain the menu. “On the top you see ‘Cocktails,’” he began, as if we were illiterate or blind. “Those are our cocktails. ‘To Share’ are items for the table to share,” he went on. “But we also have appetizers, see here under ‘Appetizers’ and then these are the ‘Mains.’”
At least he didn’t insist on reading each dish with its designated ingredients.
The architecture of the room is dramatic. Décor changes with each new chef. Photo: Anjali Pinto.
My holiday week in Chicago wasn’t meant to be a work excursion, but we did have to eat. I urged my firmly opinionated brother Jim to choose the lineup, knowing our evenings might lean aquatic. He’s a paragon of fitness -- nothing comes between this guy and his workout – and he often favors fish, good fish as opposed to swimmers that attract mercury. Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak, and Stone Crab and Shaw’s Crab House were on our calendar.
Beets in many textures with fresh made cheese look like a berry compote -- taste like beets.
I was curious about Lettuce Entertain You’s new RPM Steak. When Jim couldn’t get the desired 7 o’clock table there, I suggested he call LEYE founder Rich Melman’s all-powerful assistant. It was she, Ann Johnson, who urged Jim to book our free night at Intro, where Melman had launched “a sort of a school in business affairs” for up-and-coming chefs who rotate in and out for three months or so at a time. Profits are shared and Lettuce brass are there to coach on entrepreneurship.
That’s how Jim, sister-in-law Mary, and I found ourselves in what was once chef Lauren Gras’s Michelin three star L2O. The step-down entrance is still theatrical as it was when Gras left, but the décor – it changes with each new chef, fabric between globes above, wood and slate on the wall -- seemed rather minimal. That left us to focus on the unusual black metal Italian cutlery and a handsome stone service plate on a black woven mat, on a black painted tabletop.
After a decade in Jean-George’s empire and solo, Chef Stephen Gillanders may settle in Chicago.
We’d just ordered drinks when the current chef-in-rotating residence, Stephen Gillanders – a veteran of ten years with Jean-Georges -- arrived at the table in a fancy sweater to welcome us and say he was taking his night off. Not exactly a good omen.
That left only hope. Gillanders food might have verged on the hyper creative. I read that Intro’s opening chef from California did Douglas fir-infused sauce and rutabaga noodles in an oxtail “tea” broth. The Chicago critic was wowed, but I doubt I would have been. The seduction began with warm corn madeleines and olive oil pooled in soft butter, set alongside.
Potato and leek soup with truffle croquettes, a surging crest of cheddar cream, and cheddar sprinkles.
The chef’s potato and leek soup was a surging froth of cheddar foam served with two small black truffle croquettes and grated cheddar cheese sprinkled on the soup bowl rim…a brilliant conspiracy. The warm baby beet salad was similarly complex without becoming ridiculous: braised beets, fried beet crisps, a house-made ricotta cheese and broken hazelnuts. It looked like a raspberry sundae.
Four small crab fritters “to share” are meager, but I admire the riff of crudités and pickled remoulade.
Four very small crab fritters at $15 seemed a little precious “To Share,” but their savory richness was played off smartly against the crunch of vinegared celery and cucumber and thin rings of jalapeño on a pickled ginger remoulade. As the wanton opposite of my Spartan brother, one luscious taste makes me crave another. So I took it.
I felt my vacation nonchalance giving way to excitement. Ten years with Jean-Georges doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything, but, why not. Gillanders food was calm, dignified, creative, yes, and mostly delicious.
Crisp-battered sea bass swims into view on wilted mustard greens, a prize for the fish-lover.
Maybe the crisp-battered sea bass on wilted mustard greens might have been a little less cooked to please me, but it delighted Jim. Mary did not seem to mind that the scallops sautéed in brown butter dashi were not five or six as the waiter promised, but four and aggressively salty.
Maitake mushrooms accompany scallops caramelized in brown butter dashi.
But the perfection of my pork chop distracted me from small grumbles. It’s not often I ask for “rare” and get a chop this thick, cooked consistently juicy and rare, but not raw all the way to the bone. This paragon sat in a puddle of wild rice cooked with collard greens, surrounded by a last minute pour of habañero butter.
I marvel at the kitchen’s skill in cooking a pork chop this thick, exquisitely rare clear to the bone.
The crisp potato chunks were a triumph too. The black truffle dip that came with seemed almost irrelevant in the thrill of their surreal crackle. Vinegar and not too much thyme added dimension to the toasted root vegetables.
Potato chunks this crisp are a trick too. Vinegar adds an accent to roasted root vegetables.
The kitchen sent out the hazelnut cake we hadn’t ordered with a candle, given my brother’s birthday has passed so recently. And there was banana budino with bourbon caramel, cocoa nibs and granola that we hadn’t ordered. Cheesecake brûlée, my choice, was delicate and creamy, alongside a sticky island of pineapple jam.
Creamy cheesecake brûlée, my choice, sits alongside a sticky island of pineapple jam.
Given our discovery high, the toll seemed reasonable: $100 each, including tip, plus $14 for valet parking (cheaper than a cab). Melman has said he wouldn’t be surprised if he came to partner with one of his rotating chefs and it looks like it might be Gillanders. The chef arrived with plans to open S.K.Y. this year in Los Angeles. But now, he confided, he was negotiating with Melman to stay in Chicago.
Banana Budino, pudding under a rubble of caramel, cocoa nubs, and granola, is a gift from the kitchen.
2300 N. Lincoln Park West. Chicago 773 868 0002. Open Monday through Thursday 5:30 am to 9:30 p, Friday ad Saturday 5 to 10 pm. Sunday 5 pm to 9 pm.
Twilight Zone—Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab
We were three deep in line, waiting for a table at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab (an evolved Chicago vision of Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach), when he approached like a mirage. It was Rich Melman. The city’s mythic restaurateur. We’d met before, and he has become an annual fixture supporting Citymeals Power Lunch for Women (We let men come for $10,000).
What you want in a wedge is serious crunch, bacon, and an excess of sauce. Joe’s wedge fits the bill.
“My assistant Ann told me you would be here tonight,” he said. Instantly, a prime circular booth was ours. The large room was astonishingly quiet for a full house. I looked up to see major soundproofing. Ugly acoustical defense. New York restaurateurs and architects think young customers crave major din. Rich Melman obviously doesn’t. Or is this just ChicRaqian DNA vs. our own.
“What are you having tonight?” he asked.
It’s not Joe’s seafood, steak, or stone crab. It’s crusty fried chicken, moist at the bone.
Mary, a beet lover, is pleased with Joe’s Beet Wellington, though it seems a mistake to me.
The menu was huge with many categories – I contemplated choosing a favorite from every category. A wedge salad,” I said. “And hashed browns.”
“Have you tried the fried chicken?” he asked.
“That’s what we should have,” Mary agreed. “We didn’t even know Joe’s did fried chicken till we read how good it was in the paper.” Jim and I leaped on bord.
“It’s my treat,” Melman told the server.
I suggested we each have one stone crab. After all, winter is the season. “I’m treating for stone crab,” Melman announced, finishing his and going off. A big project was in the works, he confided.
Mary, a beet lover, is pleased with Joe’s Beet Wellington, though it seems a mistake to me.
I wasn’t impressed by the special Beet Wellington, but Mary loved it. Jim threw caution to the wind and ordered fried calamari. Fried chicken. Fried calamari. Would he blame this madness on my presence? Mary didn’t mind the breast of chicken either. That left a thigh for Jim and a leg for me. There are many reasons why their marriage works, but that chicken duality is surely one of them.
In Chicago, peppermint ice cream with hot chocolate is the dessert of choice.
From my last visit, I recalled there was only one dessert to have at Joe’s. Peppermint ice cream with hot fudge. I glanced at the dessert list. They offered ten different pies. I’d forgotten that. There were old fashioned pies I’d long forgotten. Without the box setting it off as “The Pie of the Day,” maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the turtle pie.
“Are you sure you want to order that too? Jim asked.
“Is it like the turtle candy? I love turtles.” (There is no photo evidence of that pie here because it vanished in a attack of forks.)
We asked for the check and were told that Rich was treating. I suppose I could have begged to pay on the grounds I don’t accept gifts from restaurants. The server had already disappeared. I guess my energy to argue was in vacation mode too. We left a major tip and left with a big band-aid on my record.
60 East Grand Street. 312 379 5637.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2016. All rights reserved.
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