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At the Kitchen Chicago, Avec vet Johnny Anderes takes charge

The Colorado minichain has parachuted into a stunning space on the river.



The first thing you're likely to notice when you do a web search for the Kitchen Chicago is its nominal similarity to Kitchen Chicago, the shared-use kitchen that incubated so many of our small food businesses over the last nine years. That's the sort of tone-deaf oversight we've become accustomed to from out-of-town restaurateurs who parachute in without really understanding the local food scene.

On the other hand, this vocally local, enviro-friendly, philosophically crunchy outfit, partially owned by a sibling of tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, has maintained a philanthropic presence here in Chicago for at least two years, building over 100 "learning gardens" in Chicago Public Schools. It's not like they're not trying to fit in.

They've also tapped Avec vet Johnny Anderes to run the kitchen, he who recently checked out of Reno and the late Telegraph Wine Bar. Anderes is working from a template fairly similar to that of the minichain's Colorado restaurants, with a raw bar and a few of their signature dishes among his own starters, pastas, and mains.

I can't say how the interiors match up but the Chicago location in the Reid Murdoch Building (next door to River Roast) is lovely: chandelier–lit, exposed concrete, blond wood, and slate-blue accents in the airy dining room and large wraparound bar overlooking the river.

I suspect this primo real estate accounts for the price points—which don't appear particularly elevated at first glance, until you get a sense of the rather light portioning on some dishes. Nineteen dollars for a half dozen oysters is only a hair more dear than Shaw's, but it seemed positively wasteful due to the sloppy presentation; otherwise nicely shucked east- and west-coast bivalves were strewn across a bed of ice as if they'd been tossed there.

The plates coming from Anderes's open kitchen are all over the map. It's a typical menu that eschews focus and clarity for appeasing as broad a range of appetites as possible. So you have your French fries and hummus, olives and nuts, a charcuterie plate and a cheese plate, tomato soup and bruschetta.

For the most part they're competently done. A quartet of four large, misshapen goat cheese gougères are molten hot beneath their golden brown exterior. A thick slice of rustic bread is layered with melted, almost foamy burrata and anchoyade, an anchovy-based dip that lends a necessary dose of sodium to the proceedings. Cold slices of pink pork tenderloin are showered in chopped hard-cooked eggs, radishes, and sprouts, bolstered by an eggy sauce gribiche. Chewy slabs of seared duck liver and thick bacon lardons in a savory gravy have a similar effect on a serving of locally ground Hazzard Free Farm polenta. Garlicky Maine mussels adorned by nothing more complicated than Fresno chili and thyme are about as sweet and plump as one could hope for, while twists of trofie pasta are tossed with a light Bolognese made from beef, pork, and lamb.

Entrees are more problematic, with a half Cornish hen sitting atop a scattering of cassoulet-like beans and sausage, fairly lost in the middle of a huge earthenware bowl. Same goes for a pool of salty chowder harboring a few clams and root vegetables, almost entirely covered by a couple pieces of wheat toast. Both are delicious but seem like they should be listed among the appetizers. On the other hand, a trout filet dotted with walnuts and sliced sunchokes and bathed in brown butter vinaigrette is more substantial and a far better value, though it nears the menu's top price point at $27.

Executionally the only dud I encountered at the Kitchen Chicago was a charred strip of Slagel Farm pork loin, overcooked to inedibility, that was otherwise capably accompanied by more of that local polenta, grilled apples, and an acidic cider jus. It since appears to have been taken off the menu.

Desserts by pastry chef Claire Smith are simple and satisfying, like a rich, gooey toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream—but not always strictly straightforward, such as a slice of pumpkin pie shot with cardamom and sprinkled with pepitas.

Staff and kitchen still need to learn a bit about pacing. On different occasions servers descended with multiple courses at once, leading the tables to engage in a lot of awkward plate juggling. The Kitchen mini-empire is justifiably proud of its large collection of organic and biodynamic wines and equally varied beer list which, given the environment, make the place a nice spot to hang out and drink even if the solid but somewhat boring food is of no interest.

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