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Acadia: getting it right on the near south side

Chef Ryan McCaskey's minimalist Elysium amidst the weeds of a less-traveled part of town

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Deer Isle Shrimp, cauliflower, cuttlefish noodles, chorizo, marcona almond, fried spoon bread - JEN MORAN
  • Jen Moran
  • Deer Isle Shrimp, cauliflower, cuttlefish noodles, chorizo, marcona almond, fried spoon bread

If repeated openings of high-ticket restaurants in remote or unlikely neighborhoods are a sign of a strengthening economy, just one more ought to be enough to indicate a light at the end of the tunnel—or at least validate a consistently practical response to enduring stagnation. Relatively low rents in far-flung digs away from restaurant densities allow chefs with fine-dining pedigrees to keep doing their thing without resorting to something as crass and humbling as ordering from Sysco or driving a truck—Phillip Foss already tried that, and look where he is now. I wrote about former Les Nomades chef Chris Nugent's excursion into the far-western reaches of Lincoln Square last week, and this time it's the turn of chef Ryan McCaskey, last seen at southwest-suburban Courtright's, and a veteran journeyman who's put in time at Rushmore, Tizi Melloul, and Vivere.

The forlorn near-south-side landscape on which Acadia sits is about as far from the idyllic New England of the chef's childhood vacations as you can imagine. The low-slung empty factories and weedy undeveloped lots afford a commanding northward view of the city's skyline. Inside, it's a spacious, comfortable dining room, colored in cool silvers, grays, and off-whites that don't so much conjure up a Maine summer as a sleek intergalactic cruise ship docked on an alien landscape. Outside, the valet seems lonely—there's plenty of street parking.

McCaskey's menu is arranged simply, in first and second courses. There are no gratuitous expressions of technique for its own sake—foams and emulsions, powders, and smears of puree coalesce and harmonize with the whole in a way I wish were the case at Goosefoot.

I complained of the dispassionate compositions of the latter's eight-course tasting menu. At Acadia it's just the opposite—garnishes support and synergize a la carte dishes. They're both pretty and make sense in total: a coffee-and-lime-flavored "emulsion" (it's a foam) kisses a pair of seared scallops, while bitty sculpted carrots and mushrooms are planted among them in dabs of pureed coconut. A light sunchoke veloute is poured over puffed wild rice, tea-flavored granola, and cubes of verjus-saturated compressed green grape (which—surprise—taste just like fresh green grapes), and somehow took me back to my last bowl of Cocoa Krispies (c. 1975). A foie gras torchon is rolled in malt crumbles from which radiate arrangements of jellied hot-toddy cubes and smudges of curried apple butter.

These dishes aren't dispassionate abstracts. They have referents to familiar American classics: chicken presse, a terrine of compressed thigh meat sandwiching an herbed mousseline of breast, lies among batons of roasted salsify, rutabaga, crosshatched trumpet mushrooms, and a square of truffled bread pudding. It's chicken and stuffing, highly refined, but unironic and satisfying. A seared black cod fillet with tempura-fried clams nestled in brussels sprout cups anchored by bacon vinaigrette gel is somewhat less recognizably "chowder," the fillet reclined on a creamy foam with leek confit. The ever ubiquitous pork belly is an Alsatian choucroute garnie with stone-ground mustard and pear mostarda. Fat shrimp leaning against roasted cauliflower sections and bundles of cuttlefish noodles rest in an acidic black sauce drawn from the creature's ink. It's meant to recall Spain, I was told, vis-à-vis a scattering of powdered chorizo and marcona almonds, but the crustaceans, like much of the seafood on the menu, come from Maine, and their sweetness summons the nostalgia McCaskey is trying to get across.

Only three desserts are offered (which, if you've ingested the foie or veloute, seems about right), at the top of which is a milk chocolate cremeaux, a thick circle of pudding studded with candied huckleberry and jam, hazelnuts, and cured Meyer lemon strips. There are a handful of interesting after-dinner tipples one could opt for here, but the cremeaux pairs surprisingly well with something off the cocktail list: a vanilla-scented philter of champagne, vermouth, and orange liqueur appropriately dubbed the Cognac Dreamsicle by bartender Michael Simon.

Simon's work, last observed at the pre-catastrophe Black Sheep, remains interesting, if sometimes overcomplicated. The duds—a flavorless, bodiless, milky white whiskey flip and a carbonated riff on an Aviation with a preponderance of gin flattening the fizz—are outnumbered by the stellar drinks, namely the Amnesiac, a bitter and only mildly sweet herbal elixir whose profile changes with the dilution of absinthe ice cubes, and a similarly depthless and enduring rum and kola smash. Both intoxicants can ease you through several courses before you remember there's a wine list. The front bar features a smaller, more affordable menu—a burger, a lobster roll, oysters—for those who'd rather sit in on Simon's jesterish, energetic performance.

Dinner at Acadia comes with all the fine-dining trappings—formal coordinated squadrons of servers descending with amuses bouche, an intermezzo bread service of miniaturized buttermilk biscuits, and a mignardise of little whoopee pies and iced lemon pound cakes (not to mention a wrapped parting gift, say a brownie or a wedge of rosemary polenta cake). But this is by no means the most forbiddingly priced restaurant operating at this level. We may have its location to thank for that, but it ought to do well just about anywhere.

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