"Most people in the midwest don't know this, but aronia berries grow in the midwest." That was the word from chef C.J. Jacobson one evening at Intro, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant that will rotate in a new notable chef and new menu every three months or so, even if the space itself—formerly home to L2O—doesn't change much.
The berries came up at course four—a duo of prime NY strip loin and braised oxtail with pickled cucumber and lemon verbena. We didn't tell Jacobson that quite a few folks in the midwest are aware that chokeberries grow in fly-over country, even if they've never heard them called "aronia." We also didn't tell him that the mealy, astringent, lip-puckering fruit scattered among the shredded oxtails provided the only discordant note in a delicious dish—in fact, the only really bad bite among six courses.
It was one of several visits the genial Jacobson, a former Top Cheftestant, made to the table to run down the elements of a dish. The chef's permanent post is in Los Angeles at the well-reviewed Girasol, where he can draw upon a broader array of local and seasonal products and indulge his penchant for foraging, which he picked up during a stint at Noma in Copenhagen—world headquarters for culinary experiments with lichen, ants, and tree bark. The chokeberries (and some pine needles) were the only locally gathered ingredients we heard about that evening, despite some early hype from LEYE's Ministry of Truth that seemed to indicate that the chef was going to do some significant gathering here, as if he'd drop to his knees in the snow and dig for abandoned canine offerings. (We call those particular seasonal ingredients Chicago truffles.)
Fortunately, Jacobson is well stocked with California product, and this is the way the meal is presented at the table: a west-coast chef bringing some desperately needed sunshine to the frozen midwestern wastes—with a bit of help from midwestern farms.
That's why he could get away with bits of creamy avocado and radish among bites of glistening fresh fluke, all bathing in an intensely green liquid infused with Douglas fir needles and dotted with droplets of Korean chile paste that somehow tasted as if they weren't there at all. It was a delicate dish that couldn't have been more at odds with the hunks of crusty bread at the center of the table. Still, the only way to access the liquid on the flat plate was to smear the bread through it, something I found myself doing more than once throughout dinner.
The second course seemed more in keeping with that hearty bread: a deep bowl of fluffy riced potatoes spiked with crispy shards of chicken skin and potato, with an understory of creme fraiche and seaweed, and topped with a frothy sauce of chicken stock, butter, and a bit of the chef's mugwort stash, which contributed a slight bitterness to a heavy but delicious dish.
Midway through his tenure Jacobson swapped out some dishes, and the night I visited a sturgeon fillet hit the table for the first time, dressed with nuggets of chorizo and orange fat-saturated croutons, with kumquat coins lending an intense acidity that cut right through the dense, meaty fish.
There's an off-menu dish available to add on as an upcharge. During my visits it was a bowl of cheesy grits for two, blanketed by heady Perigord truffles and studded with ruby-red pomegranate seeds. (This comes with a plate of truffled popcorn I only wish I'd had the inspiration to mix with the grits.) This is a dish that, more than any other, underscores Jacobson's talent across this menu for tempering richness with acidity, though he might be pushing it a bit at dessert: chocolate ganache and ice cream covered in a tart juniper-infused kombucha snow; each flavor profile was interesting and delicious, yet so at odds with the others none of it made much sense together on the plate.
This first incarnation of Intro is a full prix fixe experience complete with amuse-bouches (savory sorrel meringues set on a woodland tableau), mignardises (crunchy dark chocolate and salted caramel sticks), and three choices of beverage pairings (two wine and one nonalcoholic juice option) ably matched to each individual course (a late-harvest malbec from Argentina all but redeemed that chocolate dessert course, and a creamy chenin blanc more than stood up to the potatoes).
But in no way is Intro a ponderous, stomach-bloating ordeal in the way many extravagant-tasting menus can be. Nor is it even extravagant—if you're willing to eat early or late, tickets can be had for as low as $65 (through Nick Kokonas's Tock ticketing system).
Jacobson's clearly a talent we're better off knowing in his short time here (to say nothing of Intro's regular cooks, who'll benefit from his experience, and that of the chefs to come). There's little more than a month left—until April 30 to be exact—to check out his menu, but rumors of the chef on deck are exciting. If LEYE can consistently attract this level of talent and creativity, Intro can be every bit as important as L2O once was.