Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar opened in early August, the week of the Sturgeon Moon, which is when the Algonquins believed the Great Lakes teemed with gravid fish. That's not only auspicious, it's audacious, because this intimate space that once housed the late, lamented Bar Marta stocks up to 16 varieties of fish eggs iced behind glass on the bar.
I have good friends living around this somewhat lonely stretch of Chicago Avenue who took umbrage when this restaurant announced itself. Caviar, as we've all been taught, is the food of fat cats; the rich, greedy, and powerful who would sooner kick a wheedling urchin to the curb than toss him a kopeck. Though it's changing rapidly, this neck of Humboldt Park hasn't completely lost its working-class charm, and a place slinging $145 dollops of Royal Belgian osetra gold might seem like it doesn't belong.
On the other hand, the principals behind this project maintain that, circa pre- and post-Prohibition, caviar was frequently served in Chicago bars—sometimes for free; it was as proletarian as pickled eggs and peanuts. I guess nothing works up a thirst like some salty Idaho-raised American white sturgeon roe. Alas, it's not free at Heritage, where a 12-gram serving is $59, or $113 for 30 grams. Truthfully, these onyx-colored eggs are only gently salty, but when you place a small mother-of-pearl spoonful on the roof of your mouth, they do pop on the tongue with a seductive creaminess that will leave you sad you can't afford more.
There is plenty more, though. Served on an iced dish, premium caviar varieties come with additional gobs of golden whitefish roe and red tobiko as consolation, which seems a bit like seating Beyoncé next to Kenny G. It's served along with terrific black Russian rye bread, buttered, lightly toasted, and imbued with cocoa powder and molasses, plus thin, fried-to-order Kennebec potato chips and tart, pickled carrots and cucumbers that almost manifest as a Mexican escabeche. Soft white butter and a circular tray of traditional garnishes (sour cream, chopped egg, red onions, and scallions) complete a presentation that is dramatic and generous. It's far too much food for 12 grams of caviar—which I'd recommend eating completely on its own anyway—but it's good to eat all on its own as well.
Other varieties of caviar are offered a la carte at different weights, generally lower prices, and significantly more noticeable salt levels, at least in the case of the wild rainbow trout roe ($15 for 15 grams).
Did you think Heritage was going to get by on caviar alone? Of course not. There's a seasoned chef-owner at work here. Guy Meikle, formerly of Bridgeport's much-loved Nana, has also assembled a more financially accessible menu that skews eastern European, with a few curveballs, notably toward Korea, like a grilled vegetable ramen with a doenjang base, grilled baby back ribs rubbed in spicy gochujang, and luscious king crab legs rubbed and broiled with tobiko, gochuchang, and lemon aioli.
If you're still pining for sea creatures to supplement your bread, pickles, and chips, there are oysters and smoked fish such as citrusy gravlax, shredded hot smoked trout dusted in togarashi and lime, or pleasantly dry sturgeon cured with black pepper, lemon, and horseradish.
A critical order is the velvety fennel-pollen-dusted potato soup—built on oyster-and-crab stock and sheltering a crispy fritter formed from whipped ham, mackerel, and cured tuna belly—topped with a smidge of Louisiana bowfin caviar. Thick-skinned pelmeni, filled with ground duck and foie gras and sauced with reduced plum liqueur, offer a sturdier dumpling alternative to the stout, chewy potato-and-cottage-cheese pierogi, plated on sauerkraut with charred purple cauliflower and dried beet chips.
While the majority of Meikle's menu is designed for noshing, he does provide a few entree-size plates, including panfried lake perch with succotash and wild rice, and an aged rib eye with buckwheat-foie gras golumpki. One evening I feasted on an impossibly juicy pork chop gilded with a superabundance of butterkase-and-cotija Carolina Gold rice grits and a kimchi of oysters, jalapeño, and Hatch chiles. On another occasion I was crestfallen at a sizable quantity of duck overroasted throughout into gray leather. The canine in my home was pleased with it, but at least I was too with the fluffy Czech-style dumpling that came smothered in giblet gravy on the side. Fortunately that's something you can order on its own from the a la carte section of the menu, along with a whimsical outlier: fluffy, crispy, togarashi-dusted curly fries with Dijon-and-sriracha aioli.
Desserts by pastry chef Alan Krueger match the memorability of his bread work, featuring a depthlessly rich pot de creme and a Downy-soft espresso souffle—polar opposites in terms of density but kindred in their appeal.
Heritage boasts a fascinating beverage program that well complements the highly varied nature of the menu. Partner, general manager, and beverage director Jan Henrichsen infuses a few vodka shots, ideal for the raw seafood—one spiced with gochuchang, another herbaceous with tarragon, each garnished with bread and pickles. Her wine list is mined with intriguing and uncommon bottles from central and eastern Europe, and it's a pleasure to explore varieties like creamy orange pinot gris from Slovenia; dry, cherrylike rosé from Croatia; or bold, ripe Zweigelt from Austria.
Most people will never know what it's like to eat 675 grams of caviar, but if I saw a giant comet approaching I'm pretty sure I could consume Heritage's entire inventory in one sitting. Yet until that happens I wonder whether the place can sustain that highly perishable aspect of its business model in Humboldt Park. This block doesn't have the foot traffic of too many fat cats that can afford it with much regularity. And yet Heritage deserves its place in the neighborhood, simply for its broad, imaginative, largely well-executed, and affordable concept that ought to be appreciated by all. v