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Ada St. lost its spiritual adviser . . .

. . . but the Bucktown "small plates bar food" spot still has a shining chef


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I was neck deep in this review of Michael Kornick and David Morton's new barstaurant when I heard that "spiritual adviser" Tim Lacey had left. I was going on about the recently shattered glass ceiling for bartenders: how ever since the Violet Hour opened in 2007 more and more barkeeps are given top billing above chefs, how the food is often secondary to the libations, and, in particular, how Lacey's subtle creations were well suited to the graying and plasticized North Shore slummers and city-dwelling young'uns that have been packing the joint since early March.

Lacey, who was Charles Joly's onetime right-hand man at the Drawing Room and who joined Ada St. after a short stint at Ripasso, has a long career behind the stick, dating back to the Achatz Dale Levitski days at Trio. Kornick and Morton have been trumpeting his involvement from the beginning, and I wanted to recommend that you line up before the doors open so you can assure yourself a seat at the bar from which you could engage Lacey in a round of Dealer's Choice (or several), allowing you to see for yourself how his cocktail menu only hints at his full powers.

The Hot Rods to Honolulu, being lit on fire - ANDREA BAUER

And just like that he's gone.

But at least that gives me more space to write about a nicer surprise at this candlelit factory conversion that shares the same stark industrial landscape claimed by the venerable Hideout. That would be chef Zoe Schor, whose relatively low profile in the pre- and post-opening hype must have a bit to do with the fact that she's new to town, having spent much of her career on the coasts working for the likes of Thomas Keller (at Bouchon), Tom Colicchio (at Craft), and Todd English (at Beso).

Just as you rarely hear about the fine work of Scofflaw's Mickey Neely or Barrelhouse Flat's Nick Hertel, Schor's is given short shrift by categorizing it as "small plates bar food," as if it's only a liquor sop that keeps you upright on your barstool. OK, the plates truly are small and the dishes inherently snacky, but Kornick and Morton have found someone that transcends that ghettoization, preparing tasty and thoughtful dishes that ought to be appreciated on their own terms.

I ordered the southern-fried quail twice, the second time in disbelief that such a tough little bird could be so lip-smackingly juicy, clad in a crispy batter with a tangle of pickle-y chard and a pool of thick, white, bacon-scattered country gravy. The octopus was charred on the suckers, meltingly tender underneath, and tangled atop cannellini beans and a sweet-hot Tabasco mash ketchup. Salmon tartare was mixed with bacon, chips of salmon skin, and bursting bubbles of roe.

There is the expected selection of charcuterie, cheese, and little bites, but each category contains surprises. Schor's crispy black-eyed peas, which have a crumbling armor of fried flour and Old Bay Seasoning, remain soft, almost chewy in the interior. Her cheese selection is complemented by a salad of fennel, apricot, and marcona almonds, and the cured meat platter bears ribbons of buttery heirloom Tamworth prosciutto brought up from Iowa's La Quercia, a ham that renders the two salamis that accompany it practically invisible.

Even unremarkable-appearing dishes are prepared with a degree of care, and that's hard to be bored with: a warm Caesar salad of escarole, its bitterness tamed from a partial wilting; duck confit tossed with Parmesan and tiny cavatelli drenched in the wreckage of a poached egg; geometrically precise batons of crispy and creamy polenta dipped in a smoky chipotle puree.

All that being said, Ada St. is primarily a bar where you're meant to spend your dollars primarily on the drinks, including a nice selection of mostly domestic craft beers, sparklings, reds, whites, and "reserves."

I don't know how long Lacey's list will remain intact, or how well his backups will execute it, but for now the drinks—their names taken from song titles—go down easy, never ponderous and always balanced. Even frequently aggressive elements are restrained: Fernet Branca's medicinal bitterness is smoothed with ginger beer and lime. Blended scotch is tamed by syrupy yellow chartreuse. Even the finishing blast of flaming mescal comes across as a mere whiff ahead of the first sip in a tiki-esque rye drink sweetened with pineapple.

I wasn't much of a fan of Kornick-Morton's DMK Burger Bar or Fish Bar, both in terms of food and environment. Ada St. is nowhere nearly as hokey, but I did find some atmospheric elements that annoy. First, it's a BYOF: on each of my visits some unseen AV tech was continually dithering the overhead illumination settings between Starless and Stygian. Bring your own flashlight.

Next, there's a nicely curated vinyl collection and a turntable behind the bar where staffers alternate album sides: Steve Winwood and the Doobies for the older folks that come in the waning daylight hours, Vampire Weekend for the kids that keep it going late. But this is played at deafening volume, contributing to the feeling that you're enjoying the work of the kitchen and the bar in a sensory deprivation tank.

I hope the bar staff maintains the high standard Lacey initiated and matches the one Schor sets. But if they don't it's dark and loud enough that maybe no one will notice.


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