The sort of habitual restaurant-going folk who rarely venture out of the comfortable eating enclaves of River North or Randolph Street—those who wouldn't dream of visiting dirty old Uptown for a steaming bowl of pho, a pile of spicy minchet abish on injera, or a whiskey at the Green Mill—have faced a lot of challenges lately, with celebrated fine-dining restaurants like Goosefoot, El Ideas, and Elizabeth opening in unfashionable neighborhoods at an alarming rate.
42 Grams is the latest high-end restaurant to beckon diners to a low-end destination. It's a small, nimble shop born out of the unlicensed Sous Rising "guestaurant," which conducted its affairs in the apartment just above the erstwhile fried chicken joint that 42 Grams now inhabits. The chef is Jake Bickelhaupt, who put in time at Charlie Trotter's, Schwa, and Alinea before going underground and building a fan base with a modernist multicourse menu prepared on a simple kitchen stove with a few hot plates for backup.
Bickelhaupt has expanded into a full commercial kitchen and a dining room with 18 seats (ten at a communal table, eight on bar stools verging on the open kitchen), intimate enough to preserve the casual dinner-party vibe you find at places like Elizabeth and El Ideas, which typify a setup that's steadily advancing as its own category of restaurant.
Key to the success of this is Bickelhaupt's wife, Alexa Welsh, who serves as hostess and narrator of the chef's show, identifying each element of each dish and occasionally offering instructions for how to eat them. When I ate there earlier this month, eight diners hunched on the bar stools watching Bickelhaupt and his two cooks as if the team were performing surgery. Welsh poured (BYO) wines and offered commentary on a spoonable nonliquid cocktail dominated by a shimmering cube of gin jelly and a spherified blob of cucumber-infused lime juice, each strewn with white rose-water "snow" and tart fuchsia-colored powdered hibiscus. Call it a deconstructed Jell-O shot. Like many of the 13 courses to follow, it's as vivid to see as it is vibrant to taste (though by the time you read this it's likely that the menu has evolved with the season).
The menu follows a coherent narrative. Among the early courses is a potato soup bordered by a shoreline of caviar, peas, pea shoots, potato chips, and dehydrated tomato. Next up, a salad dominated by a beet-flavored purple macaroon, its accompanying quail-egg yolk mounted on a dollop of fromage blanc. One-bite intermezzos arrive between the more substantial courses; the introduction to a pair of seafood courses, for example, is a mouthful of coconut-water noodles sprinkled with finger lime citrus pods and spooled around a liquid core of coconut milk.
The first of those seafood courses, a seemingly simple salmon nigiri served with a tumbler of whiskey-barrel-aged dashi, is a tribute to Charlie Trotter, presented on flatware auctioned after his restaurant closed and inspired by his wish for a last meal of raw fish. This simplicity is belied by minute details: trout roe and a cluster of salty sea grapes perched atop the fish and powdery dark-green phytoplankton sprinkled on the plate, accompanied by a salmon-bone-enriched dashi chaser—all contributing an unexpected intensity of flavors. The same was true of the following course, a velvety tongue of sweet, buttery uni perched on a cylinder of brioche surrounded by a moat of foamed yuzu vinaigrette.
There are occasional misfires—a stringy piece of seared foie gras, a palate cleanser of eucalyptus-coated tamarind taffy that adheres to the teeth long past its usefulness. But the other courses were winning enough to overpower those memories. A duck course in particular—slices of rare breast meat with tongue and fat cracklings and duck jus garnished with umeboshi foam and powderized eggplant—harmonized beautifully. Same goes for the pecorino cheese course served in a glass—a Cheeto dipped in fondue—and the cup of chicory mousse topped with cardamom cream that ends the meal.
Pacing is brisk yet doesn't feel rushed, and service in such close quarters doesn't miss a beat but isn't overreverent either. I ruined one of my first dessert courses, dropping a kalamansi-juice-filled orb of white chocolate before I could get it in my mouth. Bickelhaupt noticed and in seconds delivered a replacement, along with some good-natured ribbing.
And that's just what you'd expect, given that at just north of $200, inclusive of tax and tip, 42 Grams is priced commensurately with its highly personal, multicourse, BYO competitors. It's a lot of money, but it's money well spent to experience a worthy talent outside of the usual arenas.