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Staying with the analogy, small-plates dining is the equivalent of a first date, when we attempt to communicate the breadth of our personality in a condensed period of time. This is the kind of date where, generally with the liberal assistance of alcohol, we lay it all out on the table, offering lots of little pieces of ourselves in the hope that they can be assembled into a flattering whole. Timing is everything. The experience should flow naturally, effortlessly, the story of your life revealing itself in a gathering swell of beguiling facts. But all too often, this isn't how the date—or the dinner—unfolds.
Take my date with Shaman, the newish Mexican small-plates restaurant from the people behind Lakeview's Chilam Balam. This location's in West Town, on Chicago Avenue, one of those urban stretches that clings resolutely to some grittiness, and I like that. BYO and cash only to boot, it was kind of like going on a date with a bad boy, the outlier. You can imagine my thrill upon discovering that some grittiness carries through to the place's interior, with its snaking electrical conduits, plastic cafeteria chairs, and fluorescent tube lighting.
My companion and I were seated by the window, where he graciously took the cafeteria chair, allowing me a seat on the wooden banquette, which is where my date revealed its first real flaw. Built at a confounding distance from the ground, the bench left my feet to dangle in space like those of the shrunken Alice and placed me a good several inches above my friend. Fortunately, our dynamic is such that it could withstand me literally speaking down to him all night. OK, Shaman, you're quirky. I guess I can get on board with that.
Small-plates dining comes with a prescribed set of behaviors. It's generally understood that diners will choose roughly as many dishes per person as the server recommends (in this case, two), order them all at once, then surrender all control of coursing to the restaurant's whim. In order for this method to work, the progression has to be thoughtful and the firing of dishes timely. The first two dishes to hit the table were a mahimahi ceviche and a guacamole with traditional garnishes. In theory, it makes sense to open with both at once. But because they were plated identically and dressed with equal hits of palate-numbing citrus, they were essentially indistinguishable. We'd just met, and Shaman was already repeating itself.
The ceviche would've served a far nobler purpose as an intermezzo after the panfried monkfish with red lentils and brussels sprouts, which given its spot in the progression landed with a thud. Here I found myself longing for an element of acidity—anything to lift and brighten the texturally one-note and woefully underseasoned dish. It was eventually replaced with bland turkey carnitas that despite guajillo salsa, sweet potato, and blood orange lacked any hint of heat or sweetness. All this did for me was confirm something I already knew: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Carnitas are best made with pork.
This dish, too, stubbornly overstayed its welcome, and when no one came by for 15 minutes after we'd stopped eating, I assumed our final plate, a huitlacoche tamal with poblano cream and cilantro pesto, had been forgotten. I'd made my peace with being stood up, however, and when the dish then appeared I may actually have groaned. It's too bad, because the tamal was excellent—had it turned up earlier, my outlook might have been different. As it happened, we each took one or two half-hearted bites.
And then there was dessert. The Oaxacan chocolate flan had a leaden quality that quickly transformed its generous size from a delight to a burden; the plantain ice cream it came with shattered against my spoon like astronaut food. We had better luck with the creamsicle tres leches cake served with cream-soda ice cream, but though it was inoffensive, I can't say I enjoyed it.
Shaman isn't a cheap date. We ordered seven dishes, bringing our bill to $85 before tip. But the service was earnest, if uneven, and the menu offers far more than we were able to try, with dishes changing seasonally. Maybe I'll set it up with a friend.
Shaman, 1438 W. Chicago, 312-226-4175, shamanchicago.com