After running a couple of modest Chicago restaurants, Levitski found himself thrust into the spotlight as the surprise pick to succeed Grant Achatz at four-star Trio, and, just as surprising, proved up to the task. Next he came within an eyelash of winning "Top Chef" in that show's third season, and later he turned Sprout, a floundering concept, into one of Chicago's most consistently interesting restaurants.
Upcoming projects, presumably, will be a hot-dog cart and a lemonade stand.
But Frog N Snail, which opened in late March on a south-of-Belmont stretch of Broadway, does not represent Levitski in retrograde. For one thing, he continues to operate Sprout (like Frog N Snail, owned by partner Mike Causevic) at a very high level. For another, as aw-shucks approachable as Frog N Snail is, the food is definitely a step up from Levitski's work at La Tache, the Andersonville bistro (now known as Vincent) where Levitski was cooking when Trio came calling.
Frog N Snail is a pretty space, an urban forest of blond wood, handmade hickory tabletops, and walls covered in slate and glittering wallpaper that reminds me of a black-sand beach. The steel-look frog and snail figurines, scattered about the dining room, add a touch of kitsch but frankly are so subtle you might miss them.
The food is simple, but fearless. There is, for instance, the signature starter, an agreeable ragout of snails, asparagus, mushrooms and kale topped with a couple of crispy frog legs; there aren't too many chefs eager to combine those ingredients on a plate. The crostini are topped with white anchovies, along with a melange of grilled zucchini, onions, oil-poached tomatoes and sweet radish. Roasted-salmon salad with hard-boiled eggs, fingerlings and beets dabbed with poppy-seed creme fraiche is essentially a salad lyonnaise writ large, though a more traditional lyonnaise occupies the menu as well.
Levitski lets loose his deconstructive tendencies on a few dishes. The components of his ratatouille are cooked individually, then combined inside a soft crepe containing brielike d'Affinois cheese. Well-caramelized sea scallops arrive in what's essentially a compartmentalized chowder: lardons, charred raw corn and a thin corn-milk broth.
Entrees are dubbed Big Guys on the menu, and they live up to that title, many of the dishes boasting protein-on-protein indulgence. Beef stroganoff is straight-up '60s comfort food, with a bonus; a petite filet au poivre lurks beneath all that short-rib meat and house-made pappardelle noodles, and the tarragon-Madeira cream sauce adds a bearnaise-lite accent. Roasted pork loin comes with a slab of bacon-studded corn pudding; brook trout, a comparatively lighter option, still includes a scattering of sauteed snails along with a yummy toasted-almond cream.
My favorite entrees are less complex. The curry-braised lamb shank, with its minted gnocchi, goat cheese and artichoke puree, layers so many comforting flavors it's a struggle not to inhale every single morsel. Barramundi meuniere is virtually the opposite — bright and clean, rather than deep and complex — but, dressed in the classic brown-butter-lemon-caper sauce usually associated with Dover sole, it's every bit as irresistible.
Service is very un-bistrolike in its attentiveness and unaffected charm; Briar Brackney, last seen whipping up memorable cocktails at Sprout and Vincent, is the floor manager who also oversees Frog N Snail's well-chosen cocktail, beer and wine selections.
Desserts are fun (multicolored cookie-ice-cream sandwiches filled with Black Dog Gelato), seasonal (Peaches and Herb, with fresh peaches, torn basil, basil whipped cream and thyme-honey yogurt) and fascinating (the Purgatory cake combines angel-food and devil's-food cake with morello and amarena cherries, chocolate mousse and chrysanthemum cream), but never boring.
And then there are the liquid desserts, including steamed milk infused with house-made syrups (the root beer version is remarkably faithful, and the strawberry-elderberry-coconut concoction is flat-out terrific) and a number of coffee drinks, of which Levitski's favors the "Low Self-A-Steamer," a riot of caramel, vanilla, malt, coconut, peanut butter and mocha flavors.
Visit for lunch and brunch, if only for the clever crepes (the peach, mushroom and goat cheese version is wonderful) and The Hawkeye, an homage to Levitski's Iowa roots. It's his version of Iowa's iconic pork tenderloin sandwich, a dinner-plate-size breaded tenderloin served on an egg bun with ground pork, house-made bread-and-butter pickles and spicy ranch dressing. "It's my 'Man v. Food' sandwich," Levitski jokes. "You eat it for a while, and then have to take a breather." Match that sandwich to a $3 draft Schlitz (yep, it's here), and you'll be in corn-country heaven.
Another reason to brunch: Frog N Snail's "bubble service," a wry take on bottle service that provides a bottle of sparkling cava, juices and syrups for $20. Sipping what Levitski offers for $20 on Sunday morning should give people some idea of how badly they're getting torched on Saturday night.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.
Frog N Snail
3124 N. Broadway, 773-661-9166; frognsnail.com
Tribune rating: Two stars