For a short time at least, no one is going to talk about Daisies without talking about Analogue.
Analogue, which could only be described as a Cajun cocktail bar, became one of the most lamentable restaurant closings of 2016, after its principal talents (the chef and founding bartenders) exited the restaurant, which then shuttered two months later. Everybody loved Analogue, and everybody was sorry to see it go.
Now the space, on an enviable strip of Logan Square teeming with nightlife, might as well be haunted. It certainly isn't fair, but any new restaurant that moves into these digs has to make a resounding first impression if it wants everybody to stop worrying about the ghosts of Analogue while they're trying to enjoy a negroni or spool up a garlicky tangle of gossamer tajarin sprinkled with crumbled fried chicken skin.
That's a lush, extraordinarily satisfying dish that at the very least creates a pretty good first impression of Daisies. Created by chef Joe Frillman, a veteran of the Bristol, Perennial, and Balena, it evokes the kind of contentedness you feel when you eat perfectly cooked scrambled eggs.
At Daisies Frillman's offering eight pasta dishes, nine, really, if you count a pasta salad appetizer. I'm interested in knowing who would go for a pasta salad starter and then follow it with something like mushroom ragu pappardelle or whole wheat tagliatelle with walnuts and fava bean pesto. I've never met anyone like that.
That pasta salad—bowties!—is perhaps more designed for the minority of guests who choose to reject Frillman's dreams of pasta world domination and instead order his cornflake-fried chicken or a piece of Lake Superior whitefish, the only two entrees on the menu.
At least there's not a burger, which as I've pointed out before has been a virtual requirement at Chicago's recent clutch of vegetable-oriented restaurants, in which camp Daisies resides.
The cornflake chicken arrives in the form of flattened schnitzel-style planks of fried, dry, white breast meat that, relative to the vibrancy of much of this menu, taste like they were grown in a lab, served beside a scoop of rhubarb compote. After that I thought it best to concentrate on the pasta, and the eight starters that are Frillman's pawns in the vegetable game of thrones that chefs are playing this summer.
There's a dish I predict Frillman's future regulars will never allow him to take off the menu: tempura-battered mushrooms and cheese curds with a tangy green goddesss dressing. It's a crunchy, creamy, melty marriage of fat and meaty fungus that made everyone I ate it with turn into slack-jawed zombies. This is a combination designed to combat the most urgent symptom of cannabis consumption. Theoretically the same condition could be addressed by a plate of potato chips and onion dip—yes, the same thing you eat at barbecues, picnics, church lock-ins, and Netflix marathons on the couch. Here at least there's no assertive chemical taste like that of a dip made from a supermarket soup mix. It's a dainty plate of thin, nicely browned waffled chips with a cool dollop of gently onionized dairy; a miniature presentation of what you're probably used to seeing out in the wild, and not something you'd use to tame a beastly hunger.
For better and worse, both of these appetizers represent something we've seen again and again recently: chefs applying midwestern ideas, ingredients, and flavors to foreign cuisines (see Kitsune, Mango Pickle). This is most evident among the pastas, which are represented by six traditional Italian shapes—and pierogies. Besides that, almost nothing else on the menu even hints that it's been nudged by the Italian boot.
Well, OK, there's a dusting of Calabrian chile burn on the grilled zucchini showered with Parmesan flakes. And at this point in our culinary history, burrata has accepted U.S. citizenship and taken up permanent residence on all kinds of menus from coast to coast. Here it hides under a verdant pea shoot salad showered in a light spring onion vinaigrette—a veritable garden party for your guts.
An abundantly refreshing butter lettuce salad offers some of the only pork on the menu—dark, crunchy guanciale bits showered over the greens and sweet stretches of pickled red onion. Luscious segments of soft-poached and charred leeks are smothered in creamy hollandaise sharpened with mustard. Practically no Daisies diner will fail to order the carrot rillettes—a puck of finely shredded carrot cooked in duck fat, frosted on top with horseradish creme fraiche. It sounds alluring, but all of its attendant components—from grilled fennel bread and seed-studded Publican Quality Bread crackers to the thin ribbons of pickled carrot—trump the sweet, soft carrot mass.
That dish is among three on the menu that are disturbing. Along with the aforementioned chicken, the third is a plate of glistening blood-red agnolotti, a reprise from Balena, stained by beet juice, filled with feather-light ricotta, and dressed with dill and smoked trout roe. It presents a lovely eastern European profile but appears on the plate like something a surgeon might remove from the lower thorax.
Sorry—I just had to get that out of the way.
The rest of the pastas range from very good to sublime. That would be the previously mentioned tajarin, as well as its opposite: wide ribbons of toothy pappardelle in a chunky mushroom ragu. This is the plate of pasta you wish for when you're cold, alone, and running out of hope.
I feel like whenever a soulful chef puts pierogies on the menu, they're stuffed with his grandmother's disappointment. But Frillman's potato dumplings are pillowy, browned pockets of redemption that sparkle with a lemon saison sauce. (Never mind the extraneous shelled clam meat that shows up with them.)
There are also some meaty pastas on the menu: tortellini stuffed with pureed beluga lentils, chunks of pork sausage, and kale; wide sheets of thick stracci (literally "rags") with shreds of braised lamb and sweet English peas. But the whole wheat tagliatelle with walnuts and pesto made from fava bean leaves is singular, straddling the divide between the grace of the lighter pastas and the heartiness of the heavier ones, and providing a pleasing garden-green visual antidote to the gory agnolotti.
Dishes like that can help you forget that the space Daisies inherited—at least the front dining room and bar—is a small, close, and claustrophobic universe. The hostess is jailed in a tiny black box that serves as the entrance, and on warm evenings the air-conditioning can't prevent things from getting a bit clammy. Analogue was primarily a bar, so it had a right to be somewhat dark and mysterious, but valiant efforts have been made to brighten up the space by letting in some natural light near the front and adorning the walls with pretty watercolors of vegetables in close-up. Still, the dining area in the rear provides better breathing room, and the patio at the moment is the perfect place to enjoy a user-friendly wine list, presented in a two-tier price-point format—all bottles at $39 or $59, and all available by the glass. That includes surprising options like a peachy, gently effervescent, and dry rosé from downstate Utica's Illinois Sparkling Co., and McPherson Cellars' Les Copains, a fruity rhone blend from Lubbock, Texas, that can stand up to anything on the menu. While the storefront is no longer home to a cocktail bar, there are cocktails, such as a barely bitter negroni sweetened by amaro, and an only slightly oversweetened rye old-fashioned that looks like purple Kool-Aid thanks to the power of beets.
Desserts seem to be an afterthought: a cloud-light Kahlua cake and a seasonally varied fruit-and-oat bar.
Despite the improved but still imperfect design of Daisies, I have faith that people will begin to talk about the restaurant wholly on its own terms. And apart from a few dishes that ought to be rethought, Frillman is a chef of enough original talent to chase away whatever ghosts of restaurants past that may still reside in the minds of his guests. v