Bread service comes right down the middle of the 15-course degustation at Oriole. It's a slice of sourdough, slathered with cultured butter sprinkled with toasted grains. The synthesis of the tang of the bread, the nutty seed, and especially the cheeselike dairy is so deliciously funky it hits the pleasure centers of the brain with the force of a dope shot.
Upon eating this the folks at my table emitted such alarming groans of gratification that servers quickly returned to the table with seconds. That's the kind of professionally hospitable gesture one comes to expect when participating in the sort of extravagantly ticketed, multicourse meals that manage to persist here and there in our great eating city. Up front, I tend to dread potentially precious epic meals in new restaurants. (If only I could recoup the hours and dollars I've spent captive to dreary, passionless vision, sloppily brooding over wine pairings.). And at $175 a person, not including pairings or tip, Oriole out of the gate is one of the most expensive restaurants in Chicago.
But that bread course is something of a tell from chef Noah Sandoval, who previously worked at Senza, a restaurant that garnered much acclaim despite serving food completely free of gluten, that scourge of the digestively deluded (with apologies to celiac sufferers everywhere). Sandoval, after all, did time at Green Zebra and Schwa and has a range of experience that should be comforting to the nervous.
The event begins when you amble up the stairs to the unassuming doors off alleylike Walnut Street and into the host station, an old but operative industrial freight elevator, and then on into a warmly lit, slightly less raw space of exposed brick and wooden support beams containing a comfortably arranged 28 seats. A muted soundtrack of the Skatalites, Fugazi, and Grinderman keeps the atmosphere subliminally charged. Elliot Smith may make a cameo, for a misplaced dose of existential dread.
By contrast, the bright white tiled kitchen is in full view, separated into savory and pastry sides, the latter where Genie Kwon of GT Fish & Oyster, Boka, and Eleven Madison Park fame operates. You can see through the windows that the tweezer game is strong. A blowtorch makes a cameo. And all is calm, quiet, Alinea-like intensity.
The menu I ate in mid-April was dominated by seafood but began with fruit, a small dish of the year's first tiny wild French strawberries—practically out of season the moment they reached our mouths—garnished with watercress and vermouth-infused cream and paired with a cocktail of elderflower, creme de violette, and sparkling wine. It was a combination so ethereal as to make a diversion of what was to follow: a bite of sweet Scottish langoustine topped with a piece of warm lardo and a dollop of briny, buttery caviar. The plate this rested on concealed a bowl of tissuey Iberico ham complemented by sweet, nutty Campo de Montalban cheese, candied black walnut, and pickled mustard seeds. This set up creamy Santa Barbara sea urchin gonad with a touch of the fermented citrus-chile paste yuzu kosho, perched on a single maki roll packed with brown rice. Sweet Alaskan king crab hid in a bowl of fish-sauce-infused coconut cream swimming with cara cara orange (a red-fleshed variety of navel) and tart oxalis (aka wood sorrel). Steelhead trout fillets bobbed in a pho-like shishito pepper consomme among smoky-salty roe, purple potato confit, and braised artichoke.
The succession of sea creatures was broken only by the bread course and a single bite of foie gras torchon garnished with white-soy gelee and tart clusters of finger lime.
Then it was on to meaty, savory courses. A square of rare, fatty Wagyu beef alongside charred Little Gem lettuce, bearnaise, black garlic puree, and onion ash was a powerfully moving bite that didn't slow anyone down for the following tangle of caraway-flavored capellini with a cheesy butter sauce emulsified with black truffle and yeast, all showered with ground rye berries. Lush local lamb belly glazed with jus, macerated huckleberry, ramp leaf puree, anise hyssop, and roasted cipollini, all dusted with tart sumac, ended the savory courses. Kwon took the stage with passion-fruit sorbet lollipops enrobed in coconut and kaffir-lime-toasted marshmallow, cleansing the palate for a remarkable cheese course: a long pretzel cracker dotted with black currant puree, gianduja, and dabs of funky Raclette cheese, rich, fruity, sweet, and savory flavors harmonizing like a barbershop quartet. A dish of chicory custard and vanilla-cinnamon ice cream was a cool, creamy penultimate bite before mini croissants scented with cardamom and glazed with rose-acacia honey. Kwon also sends guests home with breakfast—in my case, a lemon-pecan mini pie that didn't make it to morning.
There are two pairings by former L2O and Intro sommelier Aaron McManus: one strictly wine focused ($125), the other a mix of wine, sake, beer, and cocktails ($75). They are invariably on point: the sea urchin with a multilayered junmai gingo sake from Japan's oldest active brewery that just kept giving; the beef, or chef's "beer course," with the fruity Belgian La Chouffe blond ale; and, to go with the gianduja, Brachetto d'Acqui, which happens to be the preferred bottle of the commedia dell'arte character the dessert is named for.
Overall Sandoval and Kwon present a crescendoing succession of delicate dishes with excellent product and superb flavors and compositions from which not an ort should remain on the plate. The service is well practiced, almost clairvoyant, but in no way overformal. (There are tampons in the bathroom, along with dental floss, bobby pins, and hairspray, perhaps as a collegial reminder that we're all human.) Oriole has joined the ranks of the city's high-dollar but truly fun multicourse events—Alinea, Next, Elizabeth, Schwa—that you should make a point to experience, if only once. v
Correction: This review has been amended to reflect that Genie Kwon previously worked at Eleven Madison Park.