A poster print of the first two stanzas of Shel Silverstein's poem "Me and My Giant," hangs squarely in the middle of one wall in Jason Vincent's decidedly compact Giant, his long-awaited comeback after stepping down two years ago as the nationally exalted chef at Nightwood. The reason for Vincent's sabbatical is similar to the common refrain heard from retiring athletes and politicians leaving office: some form of "I want to spend more time with my family." So it's no surprise that after two concentrated years with the kiddos, Vincent—along with partners Ben Lustbader (a former chef at Lula Cafe, Nightwood, and Publican Quality Meats) and Josh Perlman (Avec)—situated a children's poem at the heart of his new restaurant.
But what does it mean, this poem about a boy who communicates with a lonely Goliath by scratching his toe? There's certainly some irony at play. Giant, a narrow space wedged between Scofflaw and Sink | Swim, with some 40 seats and an open kitchen crammed in the back, is nowhere near as "high as a mountain and wide as a barn," as the poem's titan is described. But Vincent, at least, has come back in a big way. Good luck getting a table after five or before nine, one or even two weeks out.
And historically, that's no surprise either. There are so many reasons to follow Vincent, so many reasons to champion his projects: he uses great product, hires talented people, seems genuine and kind, helps develop neighborhood commerce, participates in the larger Chicago community in charitable and cultural ways, and most importantly, he's been one of the founders and framers of the Chicago farm-to-table movement during the first part of this century.
At Lula, along with owner Jason Hammel, he focused on the quality of product and the restaurant's relationships with producers more than adherence to any particular style of cooking, a fluidity he developed further at Nightwood, becoming known as a chef who cooks deceptively simply; that is to say, with an outward emphasis on recognizable, appealing food prepared with expert technique and complex execution that never overplay their hand.
Similarly, for all the talk of simple, recognizable food bandied about before Giant's opening, Vincent isn't letting just a few high-quality ingredients do the talking on a brief, vegetable-heavy, uncategorized menu that builds in portion size from top to bottom—although the initial bite undercuts my argument.
It's an uni shooter, an orb of warm, liquefied sea urchin gonad encased in a crispy battered shell and perched atop a nest of soy-marinated cucumber threads. It was a controversial bite among my tablemates, seeming more like something that belongs on a modernist tasting menu or at a forward-thinking pinxtos bar. Some felt that it disrespected the integrity of a product whose pleasures come from its raw, impossibly light, mousselike natural texture.
I loved it, but I will admit it's a weird, incongruous start for a menu that continues (for the moment) with a gorgeous dish of sweet and spicy red, green, and yellow peppers topped with a seemingly superfluous gob of rapidly melting honey butter. This delicate dish disintegrates into a delicious mess of juice, fruit flesh, and fat ready to be sopped with the accompanying house-made bread. It's the kind of of-the-moment dish that reinforces with startling clarity, "Ah, this is what late July tastes like." Same goes for other vegetable–based dishes that, while more complicated, still get the message across. Strips of cold marinated zucchini with a half-cooked texture, for example, are showered in pumpkin seeds, cilantro, and snow-white crumbled cheese. Sweet corn is perfect right now and barely needs anything but salt; the Thai chile mentioned on the menu sounds appealing, but it barely registers among peanuts, mint, and cheese, which combine to form a kind of amped-up esquites dominated by crispy matchstick potatoes and a general creaminess. An eggplant agrodolce reigns supreme among the vegetable dishes, the soft sweet-and-sour flesh given texture by crushed cashews and balanced by crema, all to be soaked up with thick, toasty house-made pita.
A sweet gob of Jonah crab salad accompanied by spongy waffle fries conjures ghosts of New England seafood shacks, when all you have left in your paper boat are some fries, a few pieces of stray seafood, and a cocktail sauce that has all the familiar notes of cheap common varieties but with an unexpected depth and intensity that make one simultaneously appreciate and repudiate it forever. Totally brilliant, evocative, and tasty. Meanwhile, thick, crusty Parmesan-dusted onion rings pair well with a couple meatier dishes at the far end of the menu: a bavette steak fanned out among peas and rice, and pecan-wood-smoked baby back ribs, their firm texture and judicious smoke easily standing up to the sweet sauce and a treacly side of beans.
But it's really Vincent's trio of pastas that I expect people are looking forward to most. I have a feeling Giant could serve any one of them with corn flakes and milk and still get a positive response, such is the superb tensile texture of these noodles, in particular the fat pici, tossed with bacon and jalapeño and blanketed with crunchy bread crumbs. The "sortalini" are a kind of half-assembled tortellini with guanciale, basil, and pine nuts thrown in along with the season's brightest tomatoes, while fusilli Jerry (a Seinfeld reference) is a meaty, sweet, tomato-tinged bolognese, at once familiar and transporting.
Desserts are likewise presented simply but loaded with depth of flavor. Fat, explosive blueberries swimming in creme anglaise have been soaked in Thai bird chiles and ginger syrup, while vanilla ice cream balls rolled in butter-pecan crunch and crumbled dehydrated strawberry could pass for a supercharged strawberry shortcake Good Humor bar if not for the drizzle of cajeta on top.
As beverage director, Perlman is refreshingly focused on wine, and while there's only a handful of cocktails and beers, his global list comprises small, interesting selections ranging from an obscure biodynamic Albariño to an idiosyncratic French red whose name,"You Fuck My Wine," evokes Travis Bickle addressing France's official designation of origin rules. Ask, and the staff will find you the right thing to drink.
Eat a few meals at Giant and you'll realize that the best thing about it—much like Nightwood and most assiduously seasonal restaurants—is that it will never bore. So long as Vincent continues to be inspired by what's happening around him, the food won't fall into a rut. v