Andersonville—for all its renown as an energetic residential neighborhood with an educated and diverse mix of old-school Swedes, more recently arrived Middle Easterners, and a progressive, professional, largely gay population with disposable income—has never been a fine dining destination.
Sure, it has harbored a small but important concentration of brilliant and uncompromising culinary traditionalists. There's Michael Roper and his pioneering kiss-off to Big Beer at the Hopleaf. Before their final tantrum of self-righteous artisanal rage there were Sicilian pastry purists Nick and Natalie Zarzour of Pasticceria Natalina. There still are, thank God, the obsessive pizzaiolos Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza at Great Lake. And then there's Paul Fehribach, the culinary historian at Big Jones whose kitchen scholarship keeps Chicago relevant in the wider movement to resurrect the lost food traditions of the south.
At least for a time, In Fine Spirits—the restaurant outgrowth of the quality liquor and wine shop—was part of that elite company, providing the neighborhood with a reliable, unpretentious, casual, and affordable spot to eat some exceptional bar food by a talented chef who lived and breathed to cook with local products. Early on it was also a place to drink some remarkable craft cocktails by a bartender as creative and congenial as any in the city.
Andersonville has been bereft of a serious place for cocktails ever since Ben Schiller left In Fine Spirits to join the BOKA Group in 2009, and with IFS chef Marianne Sundquist now making ghost pepper mustard and bar cherries under her new preservation venture Mess Hall & Co., the neighborhood is certainly the sorrier for the restaurant's demise last March. At first glance, the radically different approach taken by chef Brian Runge at its replacement, Premise, seems jarring and out of character for the neighborhood, even in light of recent interesting outlying endeavors by supertalented fine dining chefs at restaurants like El Ideas, Goosefoot, and Acadia.
At Premise, Runge offers a concise, relatively modernist, fine dining menu, which you'll understand if you happen to have eaten at Graham Elliot before Andrew Brochu took over. That's where Runge spent three and a half years in the kitchen, rising from line cook to chef de cuisine until he stepped away for a few months last February to hang out with his newborn.
There's nothing on his dining room menu that should be terribly upsetting to any wary Andersonvillian unfamiliar with the current fine dining trappings of modernist technique or whole animal consumption. There are no preparations of animal innards based on foreign cuisines. (OK, there's one.) There are no egoistic, self-referential jokes, memories, or deliberate provocations on the plate. And there's nothing you have to play with as if you're in a preschool fingerpainting class.
The menu leans toward seafood, and lest you think it's out of touch with the Levantine, vegetarian, or gluten-dissenting neighbors, dammit, there's a falafel entree. Texturally they're unlike any falafel I've ever had, but I'm not complaining. They're fried, of course, but their football-shaped crust encases a soft interior—a lot like a potato croquette—and the dish's accents are powerfully flavored: sweet, pickled young garlic, preserved lemon, and a bright green celery chutney. I ate that as a main course on my first visit to Premise, part of a terrific three-course tasting. Pricier and longer tasting menus are available, and one can of course order a la carte, but for just $100 (plus tax and tip), a couple can try a good sampling of Runge's repertoire and make a reasonable decision about whether to come back for more. On Wednesdays the three-course tasting is offered with complimentary wine pairings.
The falafel goes well with the only red meat on the menu at the time of my visits, the seared spring lamb loin—silky and perfectly rare slices that spent some time in the water circulator, dressed with tahini and a spicy Greek yogurt sauce, and accompanied by charred zucchini batons. It's a dish with a lot of distinct but harmonious flavors.
Apart from a duck breast, there was no other poultry on the menu either. As stated, seafood dominates, beginning with a fluke tartare with uni emulsified into a eggy sabayon, which is given enjoyable textural complexity from briny sea beans and crunchy, popped wild rice. Sweet prawns are dressed with modernist Thai flavors—lime, basil, coconut powder, red curry foam, and ginger "froth"—and supported by silky spoonfuls of tiny, creamy tapioca pearls, a garnish I wish I could eat by the bowlful. One of Runge's more conservative dishes is a simple, crispy bass fillet, plated with nutty fregola pasta, bitter rapini, and plummy currant sauce. And he takes notoriously oily, strongly flavored mackerel and turns it into the most refined version I've ever had, light and flaky with an olive tapenade, quail eggs, fingerling potato chips, and a citrusy vinaigrette. There's a surprising "smoked" salmon dish too—the super-rare fillet not actually smoked but sprinkled with a smoky tea-and-salt mixture, with textural assists offered by poppy-seed puree, explosive salty salmon roe, and fried capers.
Runge shows an impressive range beyond sea creatures—say, honeydew spheres strewn with baby cucumbers, arugula, and candied peanuts, the fruit's flavor and texture intensified by vacuum sealing that removes the spaces between its cell walls. This is a sweet but not cloying salad, drizzled with warm, nicely sour buttermilk, and one of the most visually beautiful dishes I've come across all year. And then there's those innards I mentioned: sweetbreads, light and fluffy, fried tempura style, presented with familiar Asian accents: black bean, XO sauce, and bok choy, with a dollop of sweet pickled chow chow to cut the richness.
I don't love all of the individual components in some of these creations, but they're never troubling enough to spoil the overall dish. This is particularly true among the three desserts offered. There is a dense strip of chocolate torte topped with an horchata-flavored custard icing and accompanied by "chorizo espuma" that tastes like something Kraft might employ to flavor a squirtable cheese. A couple circles of carrot cake garnished with a crystalline cube of honeycomb and freeze-dried peas is tasty, but it comes with a watery, almost flavorless scoop of pea gelato. Pastry chefs seem to be passing around the "peas and carrots" cake joke a lot lately. This one's not so funny.
Yes, compressed fruit, a few foams and espumas, and food cooked slowly in water circulators: now-familiar techno tricks of the modernist chef that, in this case, do nothing to distract from solidly prepared, delicious food. But hey, if any of you simply won't embrace this, Runge recently started offering a compromise: a casual, inexpensive, small plates "neighborhood menu," a title that indicates a number of you refuse to let go of the past. I've only had the opportunity to sample the foie-gras-mousse-filled pretzel nuggets, and they're perfectly snackable. But there are fried green tomatoes, octopus salad, beer nuts, and charcuterie too. These are served on the restaurant's two gorgeous outdoor patios and at the upstairs salon bar.
The salon is where your hangout is, Andersonville. It reintroduces one of the best things about the early days of In Fine Spirits: an excellent, adaptable, and congenial bartender in Luke LeFiles, formerly of Hot Chocolate. He has developed a postprandial cocktail list, bitter and boozy, more daring than the one downstairs and more reliant on whiskey. That's not to say he can't make you whatever you want, and I've enjoyed a few long drinking sessions there playing dealer's choice. This is not just the greatest cocktail lounge north of Armitage Avenue; it's among the best in the city, somewhat in the vein of the Aviary's basement Office, with its hidden, dark, and clubby feel, but with better drinks and none of the exclusivity.
Under LeFiles's direction the first-floor bar offers a respectable collection of classic cocktails, solidly made. But Premise's dining room itself is far more austere, and the service far more omniscient and polished than anything you might have experienced at the warm, cheery IFS. It makes you sit up straight and mind your manners, particularly if you're seated against the wall where the chalked design will rub off like soot, leaving you looking like a Welsh miner.
If that formality and Runge's sophisticated food fail to attract the kind of repeat business that a neighborhood restaurant needs to survive, then I'm sorry for Andersonville—and for the restaurant itself—because Premise has earned its place among the neighborhood's culinary elite.