I 've been obliged to review an excess of high-profile hotel restaurants in 2017, and it's been making me grouchy all year. Even the good ones follow a formula that implies they aren't for Chicagoans. By their nature hotel restaurants encourage visitors to stay in their bubble and avoid exploring the thousands of other cheffy cheeseburgers the city has to offer—they're about keeping in, not attracting.
I wasn't too worried about that happening with Marisol, the new restaurant on the ground floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Yes, the MCA is a tourist attraction, and one would expect the visiting eyeballers to require their familiar comforts after a long hour confronting the blood splatters and panicked text of, say, Raymond Pettibon's No Title (To Dust Cover . . . Shut) or the grinning one-eyed monster in Paul Sarkisian's Night With Raping Wave.
But you don't go to the MCA expecting not to be challenged, and that should extend to Marisol. Sure, the lunch menu does feature a burger. But it's a veggie burger.
There's no chef in Chicago more deserving of this lofty culinary platform than Lula Cafe's Jason Hammel, Logan Square OG and early champion of the four seasons and the local farms that live by them. Marisol refers to the Parisian-born Venezuelan pop artist of the same name, known for her boxy figurative sculptures, hanging out with Warhol, and donating the museum's first piece of artwork. I'm not sure exactly how the design honors her work, but the environs—vaulted ceilings and bright white walls featuring British artist Chris Ofili's plantlike line drawings and prominent mural of a cave-dwelling green sorceress—are engaging enough without being a distraction from Hammel and chef de cuisine Sarah Rinkavage's menu, which is pretty riveting in its own right. A quartet of snacks including marcona almonds, olives, and oysters references a Spanish style of nibbling, particularly a plate of octopus done in the style of the Spanish oil-and-vinegar-marinated anchovies known as boquerones, only slightly upstaged by the garlicky saffron-stained potato chips they arrive with.
Sunflower hummus with flaxseed crackers sounds like a depressant at a vegan commune, but the creamy swirl of nut butter is suffused with tangy artichoke and almost cheesy thanks to nutritional yeast. The pile of nutty brittle it comes with should be sold by the bag in the gift shop. Burrata, the second-most obligatory menu item of the last decade, is here one of the period's most original, garnished with candied squash, semidried persimmons, and charred ginger and served with honey-garlic sourdough toast. Brussels sprouts, another old warhorse, are revived plated three ways, whole raw and fried leaves alongside shavings piled to conceal smoky deposits of whitefish, its salinity countered by candied poppy seeds and orange vinaigrette. Whole roasted chicken, another standard, rests on an assemblage of rich pan juices, fresh herbs, masa dumplings (tamales by any other name), and roasted squash, along with an herb-and-apple-bedecked tartine with chicken-liver mousse curlicued across the surface. Sweet, just barely cooked shrimp kissed with lardo and drizzled with brown butter and walnut-apple saba seems to channel a weirdly compelling union between sea life and apple pie. A wobbly tower of Boston bibb lettuce and Granny Smith apples is pleasantly dilled with green goddess dressing inspired by a "natural food salad dressing" Marisol herself contributed to the 1977 Museum of Modern Art Artists' Cookbook. It's a work of minimalism that stands out in this crowd.
Pastas are a forceful presence on the tight menu, including ropy rye-flour bucatini coiling among fat fresh clams and chunks of pancetta. Mafalde (short ruffled ropes) glistening with goat-milk butter tangle with sweet red peppers, meaty black trumpet mushrooms, fatty dabs of ricotta, and kale (you won't notice it).
And yet this particular menu strays off course here and there. Purple beets are a positive bummer, leaden slabs squirted with oily olive puree and huckleberry conserves without any dairy or acid to cut through the dense, beety fog. These are the taproots that encourage the unjust discrimination against all beets that infects most small children. On one occasion a whole roasted sea bream hit the tables with soft skin, maybe dampened by its overstory of an otherwise colorful and enjoyable salad of radishes and cranberry beans. The most challenging dish on the menu is a piece of swordfish steamed without the flavoring kiss of fire, perched on a mound of riced cauliflower and smothered in uni-tinged hollandaise with a topknot of sliced MightyVine cherry tomatoes. Apart from those, it's a study in white I could probably better appreciate in one of the galleries upstairs.
Pastry chef Alison Cates ends things nicely with a deconstructed tres leches cake and coconut sorbet scattered with a textured chicory crumble that supports the liquid pleasures inherent in this dessert without making it collapse into a swamp of mush. The date cake is a chewy disk of fruit surrounded by chocolate gravel and dried apricot and topped by a ball of frozen kefir. And Cates's individual ice creams conceal wonderful textural surprises, like candied fennel at the base of a scoop of apple cider sorbet or crushed macadamia nuts with coffee-coconut sorbet.
Just a few cocktails—like the judiciously sweetened Sidney J, with sherry and tequila, or the Found in Photo, with Old Tom gin and the wine-and-unfermented-grape-juice liqueur Byrrh Grand—play support to some 50 whites, oranges, and reds by the bottle, most in the $50 to $80 range, and almost 20 by the glass, among them options like an orange Sikile Terre Siciliane Grecanico Dorato with apricot notes or a relative heavyweight like a Ligurian Rossese di Dolceacqua.
The very best thing about Marisol is that Hammel and company aren't presenting boring food. They're challenging themselves, like artists are known to do. You slash the canvases sometimes when you do that. Fortunately, a restaurant isn't a motionless painting. It's an ongoing performance, and this is only the beginning of Marisol's already promising run. v