August 6, 2009
One is tempted to view 10-week-old Nightwood in terms of 10-year-old Lula, the now-legendary Logan Square restaurant to which Nightwood is the long-awaited sequel.
But that might be a disservice to both restaurants. Lula was a process; Nightwood was a plan.
Lula, in co-owner and executive chef Jason Hammel's words, is the "happy accident," the coffee shop that evolved into a full-scale restaurant, nurturing a close-knit following along the way. Nightwood is the result of three years' planning, an expression of what Hammel and his wife, Amalea Tshilds, wanted to do next.
Nightwood, not surprisingly, has opened hot. It's not just that it's a sophisticated, contemporary-American restaurant in Pilsen, a neighborhood with a bounty of Mexican restaurants but few non-Latin culinary options. It's also because Hammel and Tshilds made their intentions known more than a year ago; "eagerly anticipated" doesn't begin to describe the pre-opening buzz about this place.
Chef de cuisine Jason Vincent, who was Lula's sous chef under Hammel for the last four years, will convince you that the hype was indeed justified. His daily handwritten menus might be a little challenging to read, but nearly all the 10 appetizers and 10 entrees (on average) sound intriguing.
A salad of Michigan peaches, Gorgonzola cheese, almonds and arugula virtually defines "farm to table," bursting with just-picked freshness. A mere splash of aged balsamic vinegar is all the dressing this collection received, and all it needed.
If you see chicken liver on the menu, order it. Dabs of the silky stuff made a fine filling for delicate agnolotti served over shredded leeks one night. Another time, we said to hell with subtlety and ordered the chicken liver pate, rich and smooth, served with freshly made potato chips; the flavors, most impressively the salt levels, balanced beautifully.
Pork shank ravioli with almond butter and shaved amaretto cookies sounded wonderful, and that's how it tasted, bits of rich meat and tender pasta perked up with almond flavors and a bit of cookie crunch. Potato gnocchi with tomato and corn sounded pedestrian, but it was a revelation instead; the tomato and sweet-corn flavors were delightfully bright and vivid, perfectly placed against the soft gnocchi.
My favorite entree is the spit-roasted pork loin, accompanied by roasted apricots and topped with a delicious blend of chopped olives and creme fraiche. Wisconsin trout is a terrific option, whether served with a turnip persillade (the way I got it) or a summery sweet corn, swiss chard and bacon mix (the current preparation). Thickly sliced duck breast with cabbage and pancetta, roasted chicken with white beans and mustard greens -- both simple and tasty, but more aggressive seasoning wouldn't hurt. I loved the texture of the house-made spaghetti, but I thought the ground lamb bolognese sauce was too bland.
I'd save room for at least some of Melissa Trimmer's desserts, particularly the black cherry tart with the surprise hint of chocolate, and the cookie assortment, whose components change regularly but among the typical inclusions are a soft chocolate pillow cookie, a Linzer (raspberry jam-filled) sandwich and, my favorite, a pecan shortbread cookie.
There are several seating options at Nightwood. The outdoor space, surrounded by high privacy walls (trust me, there's no view to miss), is charming, and probably a bit less noisy than the main dining room. A few two-seat tables along the corridor are unappealing. I'd choose the counter seating, either along the bar or, farther back, at the kitchen counter; both let you interact with the people creating your dinner, or at least pouring your drinks.
Speaking of drinks, there are some very nice cocktails on the menu, including an exceptional Manhattan made with two kinds of bitters. The thoughtful wine list is filled with small producers and less-familiar names, at prices that make you comfortable venturing into unknown territory.
I wish there were more bread service. The yummy garlic bread served with the spaghetti lets me know that there's bread to be had, but no basket ever arrives. Vincent says the bread issue is under consideration, and that homemade biscuits or baguettes might become a regular feature. It can't happen too soon.
Coming sometime this month will be Sunday brunch, which is something of a sacred rite among the Lula faithful. Vincent says Nightwood's brunch likely will follow the model at Lula closely.
"I kinda see it as an 'it's not broke, don't try to fix it' situation," he says. "But Lula has chilaquiles, and we won't be doing that here. I don't want to be the gringo doing chilaquiles in Pilsen; I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
Nightwood2119 S. Halsted St., 312-526-3385
Open: Dinner Tue.-Sat.
Entree prices : $18-$32
Credit cards: A, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible
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