If there was ever a place that made me wish the Reader rated restaurants on a four-star scale, it's A10, Matthias Merges's much-anticipated foray into Hyde Park.
Most restaurant critics I know loathe the practice of giving starred reviews, and with good reason. Stars can be frustratingly arbitrary; publications in the same city typically issue them according to different standards, meaning one magazine reviewer's three-star restaurant is another reviewer's two-star experience.
Generally speaking, we at the Reader have preferred not to rank things that might be better left unquantified (the stars that accompany our essay-length movie reviews are the exception). When it comes to restaurants, we opt to either recommend a place or not. Isn't that all there is to it, really?
In the case of A10, no.
I'm tempted to hold A10 to both a higher and a lower standard. Higher because Merges has not only Charlie Trotter's on his resumé but Yusho, his spunky izakaya in Avondale, and Billy Sunday, a bespoke cocktail bar in Logan Square. Lower because the bar has been set depressingly low in Hyde Park, a destination that cries out for the quality restaurants found in those northwest-side hoods.
To the latter point, A10 deserves a star (if we dealt them) for breaking ground so stylishly and sympathetically. The gem of the University of Chicago's $250 million Harper Court development, it manages to feel like part of the neighborhood—as opposed to merely part of the reinvention of the neighborhood. Yusho accomplished something similar in Avondale, channeling that neighborhood's quirky essence while supplying a missing piece in the form of a casual, boundary-pushing restaurant. Billy Sunday didn't break as much ground in Logan Square (the earth had long been shattered there), but it too is very much a restaurant for and about its surroundings.
A10 is elegantly conceived and designed. One side of the restaurant is anchored by a solid, simple wooden bar, with an exposed brick wall hung with tasteful, geometric-patterned tapestries and a row of picture windows opposite it, all cast in dim lighting and hushed tones. The other side, by comparison, is warmly bright and cacophonous, with the semiexposed kitchen (tucked behind a rather high ledge) serving as something of a focal point. My suggestion is to eat on the bar side, but I might be a little biased—I had a significantly better meal on the occasion when I was seated on that side, and on both occasions the cocktails were the high point.
Another star should be handed to A10 for the quality and inventiveness of those drinks. Draft cocktails such as the Americano (Gran Classico, vermouth) are batched en masse and carbonated. A similar list of "tonics" is offered at Billy Sunday, though with riskier ingredients. At A10 the flavor profiles may be simpler (no dandelion, cedar berry, or wild cherry bark here), but the result is just as complex. The same can be said of A10's stirred and shaken concoctions, including a simple and expertly calibrated manhattan and a more complex layering of Armagnac, maraschino, and Cointreau, aka the Hennessy.
If only this spirit of restraint were as successful in the food.
Simplicity is the menu's unstated theme—this is a place, after all, that serves a naked piece of cold smoked trout over a bed of whipped potatoes—and yet restraint was absent in many of the dishes I tried. In others it was excessive to the point of boredom.
Let's start with the first, better visit. An otherwise spot-on chicken liver mousse, not unlike the version served at Billy Sunday (A10 subs royal trumpet mushroom and marsala gelee for Billy Sunday's curried raisin mostarda and quail egg), arrived a bit too cold and thus had to thaw out a little. No big deal; no one was in a rush. Another appetizer of snails served in a mini cast-iron skillet with tender vegetables and fragrant herbs, topped with a rosemary "biscuit," was pure comfort—if unevenly seasoned. Again, nothing to get worked up about.
OK, maybe the steak was medium when we requested medium rare, but boy oh boy that anchovy butter! Nothing about this dish screamed "deal breaker."
And so what if a side of cauliflower wasn't charred, as promised—and was in fact three notes too sweet due to an overabundance of golden raisins? That letdown was more than compensated by the boudin noir—blood sausage served with pickled squid tentacles, braised cabbage, and ink vinaigrette. It was fishy and meaty and properly acidic, and it stole the show.
You can imagine that I returned to the restaurant a week later with high hopes. Surely these small missteps would be corrected with another week of service under A10's belt. But my hopes were more or less dashed.
A salted-cod croquette was overwhelmed by aioli (a difficult feat) and bore no trace of the charred rapini I'd been looking forward to (that also makes the second time I was promised "char" and denied it). The pizzas sounded intriguing—particularly the smoked eggplant with house-made burrata. But in execution it was just plain uninspired, a Sicilian-style pie sliced into four large wedges and piled unceremoniously onto a plate. The sliver of eggplant was indistinguishable and the burrata cooked to the point of losing its lustrous creaminess. The whole thing was further disgraced by a far-too-liberal dose of balsamic reduction.
I was less disappointed by the campanelle with seafood (one of five pasta selections), with a sauce that was only a touch thin and just slightly in need of salt and/or acid—a need temporarily relieved by the briny burst of a particularly delectable mussel. Similarly, there wasn't quite enough going on with the aforementioned simple dish of trout, aside from the fish's intense smokiness (please lend some of that smoke to the pizza's eggplant!) and the whipped potatoes' butteriness. A little acid would have gone a long way to balance both.
Most of these shortcomings are minor—I'd be tempted to give A10 a half star for being so damn close with so many of its dishes. But taken together, the missteps feel much larger.
A10 definitely would earn a half star for its gracious and earnest front-of-house staff, drawn from a pool stocked with a steady supply of U. of C. students as well as with unaffiliated south-siders. The crowd was equally refreshing and diverse.
But does two and a half stars—by my own rigged-up reckoning—warrant a recommendation?
If it's true, as some believe, that Hyde Park is the gateway to the south side, then I'd like to think of A10 being on the cusp of something—hopefully a south-side restaurant renaissance that eventually will extend south of 60th and west of Stony Island. That is an exciting prospect.
But for the time being, A10 is merely on the cusp of being a great restaurant.