The Facebook photo album for River West's the Black Sheep features 40 photos of James Toland's punk rock band and less than a dozen depicting his food. The chef, whose early career was spent cooking under Didier Durand, has been away for decades. Folks should be curious about his culinary style, because there's been little to go on since his return to Chicago as chef de cuisine at Lockwood, where opening chef Phillip Foss was as progressive as Durand is traditional. Sure, Toland created some interesting dishes there, but his tenure was brief, and much of his prodigious public relations work since then has been spent holding contests for readers of restaurant gossip blogs, promising to be a chef's chef with an affordable late-night menu, and offering free food to touring musicians. Who knew that they'd actually want to eat it?
Those interested in Toland's music can pick up his album at the hostess stand, but the rest of us who want a good look at his food are again out of luck. The two dining rooms situated behind the distressed rust exterior of the old May Street Market are shrouded in gloom, dimly lit by tube amp fixtures that provide plenty of light on Vincent Grech's manipulated silk screens of classic punk artists and albums (also well documented online)—but not much on the artfully plated food.
Those prone to eye rolling will nurse headaches at all the rock-and-roll posturing. One evening beverage consultant Michael Simon (formerly of Graham Elliot), dressed like a member of the Schutzstaffel, introduced himself as the "sheriff of Boozetown." Even my first bite in the restaurant—an amuse bouche of charred redfish collar with Thai chile vinaigrette—seemed like a gratuitous albeit tasty hello and fuck you to the tongue.
But then, just as the sound system kicked in with the Descendents' "Sour Grapes," a server poured a spiral of tart sour-cherry sauce onto a pool of cool, creamy English pea soup, and I felt the same blast of irrational confidence the song gave me when I was a pissy, sulking 16-year-old. It was phenomenally good. And so was the simple Caesar salad riff of sunflower sprouts so fresh they gave off their own light, a long cool noodle of Parmesan gelee, corn-bread croutons, and egg and anchovy powder.
Sight be damned, the taste of many of these dishes can quickly give you the idea that Toland is more than capable of harmonizing multiple textures and flavors, subtle and bold. His Mushroom Feast is an ornate arrangement of seven different species, including pickled morels, steaklike abalone, and shimejis somehow mimicking the flavor of tiny raisins, the whole thing dusted with porcini powder and crowned with a chip assuming the form of a fungal chiccharone. His snails tossed with bread crumbs and sauteed with Chartreuse are a restrained study in licorice flavors, accompanied with an anise-scented scoop of porridge, apple-fennel sauce, and shaved fennel. Juicy chicken thigh is reassembled in a crispy cylinder of meat set on a lake of pureed bacon and dotted with drops of liquid brussels sprouts, and fingers of smoked eel are glazed with a syrup made from the Austrian ice wine trochenberry and paired with globes of candied compressed melon and raisin puree. We asked for a spoon to suck up every last bit of mussel-infused consomme poured over a bowl of the bivalves, with escarole, fennel, sausage, and beans.
This is highly manipulated, dramatically presented food. Well-drilled servers finish many dishes at the table, such as a redfish fillet and five-minute-egg-topped rillette poured over with some thick bacon-infused custard sauce. These only occasionally feel off. The gaminess of a mutton daube is at odds with its precise presentation of perfect black cubes of lacquered molded sheep. Littleneck clams are misleadingly given top billing among a quartet of seafood bites, along with cured sardine, Laughing Bird shrimp, and octopus, each tasty but tiny and ultimately unsatisfying.
Yet desserts by Sarah Jordan (ex Blackbird) match Toland's ambition, particularly the cigars of St-Germaine sorbet wrapped in icy blueberry sheaths, and her smoked—yes, risen in a smoker—beignets, with pearls of pickled apple, gooey malt semifreddo, and sour beer caramel. Even the sheriff of Boozetown has interesting things to say, with a cocktail list that leans sweet but incorporates interesting signature ingredients—house-made mint soda in the Chartreuse-based Hulk Smash, a coriander-flavored ice cube that chills the mezcal old-fashioned, a Sazerac sweetened with juniper-infused demerara syrup.
The recently debuted late-night menu displays an appealingly black sense of humor, featuring a half head of cauliflower cooked sous vide then sauteed in butter, sitting brainlike atop a gory-looking bed of charred tomatoes and almonds. But I don't know if Toland will win the patronage of his intended audience. With small plates ranging between $12 and $14 and larger ones ascending to the mid-$30s, the prices aren't as chef- and musician-friendly as he once promised. And it takes some forbearance to get past the trappings of the chef's avocation. We get it, dude. You rock. Just don't give up your night job.
E-mail Mike Sula at firstname.lastname@example.org.