The good news for Ryan McCaskey is that his restaurant, Acadia, a fine dining pioneer on the near south side, still gets publicity after 20 months in business. He just has to be philosophical about what kind of publicity it is.
"During Baconfest, I walked down the street and someone yelled, 'Hey, you’re the burger guy!'" McCaskey says.
Acadia came out of the box as a fine dining restaurant—it landed on the cover of Chicago magazine's issue featuring the Best New Restaurants of 2012 and earned a Michelin star in its first year. Yet because Acadia was opening in a neighborhood that not only had no fine dining restaurant, but was fairly thin on restaurants at all, McCaskey felt he needed to be both a high-end destination and a neighborhood place where locals could come once or twice a week. And so dishes like the burger or the Maine lobster roll served in the bar tend to turn up on lists of the best in town, stealing the spotlight from his higher-end cuisine.
The perpetually rumpled McCaskey, who's even-keeled and a bit bemused as chefs go, smiles wryly and says, "Did I mean to do that? Did I mean to be a burger guy? Not really. I was much less deliberate about the bar menu than the rest of the restaurant." Many restaurateurs would look at the writing on the wall and take the whole restaurant downscale. But McCaskey is doubling down on his ambitions.
About a week ago he launched an eight-course tasting menu intended to give him a chance to show what he can do when going head-to-head with other top restaurants in town. Ironically, just like the burger, this is also partly a response to the polarization of diner expectations circa 2013—visitors who'd read Acadia's press were surprised when they got there to find that there wasn't an arty, double-digit-course option. "People would say, 'We came into town and we wanted 10 or 15 courses. Why don't you have 15 courses?"
At $150, the tasting menu is less than those at Alinea or Grace but close to tasting menus at the second tier pricewise; Schwa's, for example. For McCaskey, it's an opportunity to show "how serious we are about not only the experience but the product we bring in. There are some things we've had on the menu that only one other person in the country has, myself and Thomas Keller." Going against the locavorism many chefs profess to practice these days, McCaskey sources from all over the world—"To me good is good. I will source the world, and I just want to bring in the best. And [a tasting menu] is a really good place to showcase that."
I challenge him on one local ingredient. The tasting menu's debut has been held up as he waits for Maine blueberries, which are proving stubbornly hard to source ("They don't like to let those out of the state," he says half jokingly). But midwestern blueberries are terrific right now—why not use those?
"Maine blueberries are tart, and sweet, and smaller, and have a more compact blueberry flavor," he explains. "Michigan blueberries are great, but the flavor of pure blueberry sometimes to me is a little muddled. And the Michigan blueberries don't have the same acid content." He also admits that it might just be that he loves what he grew up eating (his family spent summers in Maine), and no other flavor seems quite right to him.
Ultimately, for McCaskey the tasting menu is "an edible snapshot of my whole career. Twenty-one years of me cooking. I've been doing Vietnamese food and Korean food and French food, even some Irish food, Italian food, Moroccan food—here's a little of everything I've done. And I think [guests] will like taking that journey and seeing that spectrum."
When that's settled, he says, he's going to get deliberate about the bar menu.
View a slideshow of Ryan McCaskey making the tasting menu at Acadia.
Acadia, 1639 S. Wabash, 312-360-9500, acadiachicago.com
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that Ryan McCaskey is not related to the McCaskeys who own the Chicago Bears.