I’m not sure an exhibition of large oil paintings of shipwrecks is the most auspicious subject for a fledgling restaurant to surround its guests with. But that’s what’s happened at the Cotton Duck, a Wicker Park art gallery/restaurant (artstaurant?) that will present a new menu every three months inspired by the work each time it mounts a show.
The paintings, by Renee McGinnis, which “distill all I know of our species and the systems that sustain us down to a gentle yet sorrowful beauty,” according to the artist's statement, are beautiful and foreboding. But trying to draw a connection between them and the food is a bit tricky.
Chef Dominic Zumpano has made no statement of his own. A veteran of suburban Highwood’s now-defunct PM Prime Steakhouse, and before that Milwaukee’s shuttered Umami Moto, for which he was a semifinalist for a regional James Beard Award, Zumpano apparently hasn’t explained his strategy to the front of the house, who seem to have no clue how the food reflects upon the art, or vice versa.
In this age of Next and Intro, tying your menu to a particular theme or style or chef is nothing new. But we’ll have to wait until the paintings come down and new ones go up before we get any real sense of Zumpano’s style, consistency, or versatility, just as each iteration of those restaurants requires its own period of adjustment.
For now all I can say about his food’s relationship to broken battleships is that it features lots of seafood, much of it with haute ambitions, lots of blank space on the plates, many squiggles and smears of rich, voluptuous, and often salty sauces, strong flavors competing for attention in each dish, but little harmony or balance.
Take a small offering of breaded and fried oysters, anchored to a spoon by tomato jam with a turban of thick vinegar-infused whipped cream. The oyster is hot and briny, the jam cold and sickly sweet, the cream almost malty. Luckily the parts of the dish were so disparate that the only sensible way to eat them was in sequence rather than all together.
Dry-aged steak tartare is promised tantalizingly with uni, but the sea urchin gets lost amid the minced beef, while squid ink powder is helplessly deposited in two smudges from each corner of the plate. You can try to peck through a thicket of watercress and sesame crackers for a few scraps of grappa-cured char, but once you locate them they make little impact.
Large plates only get busier. A pair of seared scallops flank a salmon-roe-topped rice crepe atop a pile of redundantly rich and sweet pureed salsify, with no counterpoint to the shellfish’s sweet richness. Chunks of salty oversmoked sturgeon and a short rib dumpling totter on glossy beet coins, while a large under-rendered chunk of pork belly jiggles beside a duck egg perched on a thick corn cake, all drizzled with a sweet hoisinlike clam sauce. The common denominator in all of these dishes is a heavy hand with the salt, which after few bites from any two or three plates blows out the palate and makes everything start to taste the same.
Even Zumpano’s better dishes—and there are some good if flawed ones—could use a lighter touch. Sheets of thin, salty pastrami tongue are sweetened by caramelized onions, lightened by crispy fried onions, and scattered among sensational seared, pillowy rye gnocchi that would stand on their own as the best bites on the menu. Roasty, beautifully charred carrots are swamped in frothy cream sauce, red wine glaze, and salsa verde. Swiss chard, squash, and nutty farro are deluged by an eggy miso sauce boosted with Parmesan, while grilled and sectioned octopus tentacles are lined up against a kind of fennel-lemon hash that brings them back to life.
Things get heavy again at dessert. Sugared bombolini do battle with parsnip ice cream that starts sweet but finishes tasting like a root cellar, while an intensely funky blue cheese cheesecake overpowers the accompanying maple-pepper caramel and icy blackberry sorbet.
The Cotton Duck is BYOB, but there's a selection of alcohol-free soda cocktails designed by Adam Seger that have been given names corresponding to the paintings on view, though the link is tenuous at best. The idea is servers will either mix a drink for you using your booze or allow you do to it at the table. Staff isn’t uniformly trained to do this. In one case I was presented with a jigger and glass filled to the brim with Seger’s Fire in the Belly, a combination of ginger demerara, bourbon-vanilla chai, and smoked tea. Virgin, it tasted like smoked salmon. On the other hand the house ginger beer had a nicely menacing bite and mute sweetness, a perfect vehicle for bourbon or rum.
I won’t say I’m not curious where this ship is headed, both with the art on the walls and Zumpano’s next menu, but I think a lighter hand on the kitchen’s wheel would keep it away from the rocks. v