3-STAR DINING REVIEW

Soaring on the South Side

Ambitious restaurant off to impressive start

When I heard that Acadia, a high-end restaurant, was opening in the South Loop, I sighed. A dining neighborhood that once looked like the second coming of Randolph Street — when Opera, Saiko, Cuatro and Room 21 were doing brisk business — has sagged badly in the last couple of years, as each of the aforementioned restaurants went dark. Only Chicago Firehouse and Gioco are left of that pioneering bunch, and Gioco only after a significant menu overhaul.

I'm still not sanguine about the neighborhood's dining future, though the potential is surely there, but I have high hopes about Acadia, which has been playing to full dining rooms since its late-December opening.

"My parents thought I was nuts," says chef/owner Ryan McCaskey, in what may well be an understatement. "I'm sticking my neck out a bit. But everybody's going to the West Loop. I've lived in this neighborhood for 12 years; I don't mind being a pioneer."

Nestled into a nondescript concrete box on a stretch of Wabash Avenue virtually devoid of evening foot traffic, Acadia from the outside is all intrigue, with only hints of motion discernible through the street-side frosted windows. Inside, past a simple bar area (with an inexpensive menu that attracts local drop-ins), one finds a dining space broken into discrete environments by a ceiling-hung, metal-bead curtain and other visual tricks. Amid neutral, two-toned walls and generously wide chairs wrapped in bright-white fabric, a platoon of nattily attired staffers glides serenely to and from the extra-large tables. An open doorway, wrapped in wood paneling like an oversize art frame, offers tantalizing peeks into the kitchen. And suddenly, one's expectations are soaring like the dining room's 15-foot walls.

McCaskey's presence, no doubt, accounts for the restaurant's instant popularity; McCaskey has built a following as chef at restaurants such as Courtright's, Tizi Melloul and Rushmore. At Acadia, however, McCaskey is doing the best work of his career.

First to the table will be a little amuse-bouche, perhaps an herbed goat-cheese gougere or a lobster-infused crisp topped with huckleberry. Next comes bread, miniature buttermilk biscuits with soft butter and sea salt, so irresistibly flaky I was grateful for their tiny size.

McCaskey's plates are camera-ready gorgeous, each component getting its own space on the plate. A medallion of foie gras torchon, topped with crunchy malt, is flanked by cubes of jelled apple toddy, dots of intensely tart lemon and compressed apple slices, representing a three-pronged attack on the liver's fatty richness. A pair of jumbo scallops, which taste as though they were harvested an hour ago, are topped with a cardamom-coffee froth that mimics the look of sea foam, set amid upright pieces of turmeric-poached carrots.

Among larger plates are two don't-miss dishes. One is the so-called lobster potpie, placing butter-poached pieces of lobster among Tokyo turnips and crispy potato-dauphine balls flavored with tarragon, topped with a sour-cream pastry cap and dressed with a judicious table-side pour of classic lobster bisque. The other is the black cod, as spare and restrained as the lobster dish is crowded and indulgent, presented against an airy pillow of clam-chowder foam, near a trailing curve of fried clam, Brussels sprout leaves, leeks and pinpoint dabs of bacon vinaigrette.

I'd make room as well for the wagyu tri-tip, a gussied-up meat-and-potatoes dish that matches thick slices of beef with a virtual Stonehenge of confit and baked potatoes (the smoked-onion soubise beneath the meat makes the dish); the Deer Isle shrimp over shredded-cuttlefish "noodles" with fried pieces of lemony polenta and dehydrated chorizo; and the air-quotes risotto, a rice-free composition consisting of tiny diced Yukon Gold potatoes and apples, bolstered by cream and black truffle.

Desserts are so free-form they border on the haphazard. The chocolate pudding appears to have been dropped from the sky, the pudding jammed with torn pieces of spongecake, spirals of candied lemon zest, hazelnuts, almond-cookie shards and more — an absolute mess, but quite tasty. Chunks of roasted pineapple, nicely caramelized, are plated with pieces of olive-oil cake, fennel and mascarpone ice cream. You know what I love? The two mignardises — tiny whoopie pies and a pistachio-cake cube with sour-cherry compote — that arrive at meal's end.

The beverage program includes some outstanding, novel cocktails — the Amnesiac is my favorite — whose only disadvantage is that they take some time to produce. Sommelier and general manager Jason Prah curates a very good wine list, with a gratifying number of budget-friendly choices.

Acadia is dark Mondays and Tuesdays, though it will make exceptions during big conventions (McCormick Place is a few blocks away), and, next week, for Valentine's Day. Not that, at this late date, the information is likely to do you much good.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.

Acadia

1639 S. Wabash Ave., 312-360-9500; acadiachicago.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday-Sunday
Entree prices: $22-$32
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
CHICAGO

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