Even before he swept in as the fixer for Lincoln Park's Sprout—whose comically hubristic initial concept was an exorbitantly priced organic restaurant for an imaginary recession-proof customer base—Dale Levitski was one of those local celebrichefs whose personal trials have been presented as compellingly as their food (cf. Achatz, Carlson). Top Chef fans were introduced to the likable, fauxhawked, jobless ex-La Tache-and-Trio chef with a story arc that went from vertiginous ascent to crash and burn to resurrection in a flaming spectacle of pure reality TV ballswagger. If that weren't enough, following his final-round defeat, his mother died and his long-planned restaurant Town & Country was killed by the economy.
Everyone loves a good redemption song—even sung twice—and because Levitski's tune is so sweet, what churl is going to say he should've stayed home under the covers? I had to harden my heart in advance of my recent visits to Sprout, and perhaps as a result, my first glance at Levitski's elliptical menu—with not one but two dishes incorporating decidedly unseasonal January tomatoes—gave me chest pains.
Ordering a la carte is possible but discouraged subtly by the staff—and not so subtly by the steep pricing for individual dishes. But Levitski and his sous chef, Top Chef co-contestant Sara Nguyen, have answered opening chef Satko Ibrahimovic's originally proposed $120 veal filet mignon with a $60 diner-determined three-course prix fixe, complete with intermezzi and a splash of wine.
As I submitted to this scheme, I started to relax. First courses, like a meaty, tender veal cheek with escargot atop salsify puree, are substantial and for the most part technically impeccable. And some, including a pair of seared scallops with smooth parsnip that echoed the texture of popcorn with some freeze-dried corn and a fragrant bloom of cress, pears, fennel, macadamia nuts, peppermint, and grated licorice root—suggest that Levitski and Ngyuen are having lots of fun. There's enormous potential even in missteps like a charred and overchilled baby octopus with white bean puree, olive, and some of those winter tomatoes—I want that again in July.
The meat-and-potatoes ethos Levitski likes to talk about shows up all over the second-course selections, where there was more appreciation for time and place. Silky, tender sous vide venison medallions on a cauliflower mash are sauced with powerful hits of clove and anise, and long strands of braised short rib and enoki tendrils are tossed with soft, plump, seared gnocchi. But my favorite dish on the menu is the tender, almost lean strips of Wagyu draped over brandade with a drizzle of garlicky chimichurri—not just meat and potatoes but also surf and turf and churrasco all at once.
There's probably more invention and risk-taking in the dessert courses than anywhere else, and for the most part it pays off. A number of plates employ traditionally savory elements, such as a deconstructed lemon tart with cilantro oil and pink peppercorn cookies (no longer on the menu), a pineapple-topped pancake with candied beets and chocolate goat cheese, and butternut squash beignets with whiskey ice cream and curry sauce.
The intermezzi are less reliable. A so-called palate cleanser between the first and second courses—a raspberry-champagne granita—laid waste to everything in its path like a 7-Eleven Slurpee. And the aged cheddar-apple-sweet onion sandwich with crispy cheese tulle skirt might be my all-time favorite grilled cheese sandwich, but its unwieldiness as a pre-dessert cheese course undermined its cleverness.
At the moment Sprout doesn't seem like the restaurant Levitski would build if he could have everything his way. The space, purportedly redecorated with input from the suggestion box, still looks like a bit like it was designed by the mistress of a third world drug lord. And on the slow nights I visited, there were stretches of glacial pacing that suggest the chefs could benefit from the sort of high-pressure deadlines imposed on them when they were on TV.
Still, I'm just glad Levitski's back in the kitchen—he's a significant talent with a lot more going for him than just a good story. —Mike Sula
In early 2006 Jonathan Goldsmith opened Ravenswood's Spacca Napoli, introducing the city to authentic Neapolitan pizza and pretty much altering the landscape for pizza in Chicago in general. Goldsmith's not-so-secret weapon was not his massive imported wood-burning brick oven but an import of another sort: Nella Grassano, a Naples native who'd started making pies at age eight in her family's pizzeria. Spacca still turns out perfectly good pies, but after Grassano's departure in 2007, the pizzagentsia began to grumble about a decline in consistency. Now she's teamed up with Mia Francesca capo Scott Harris for the first of two projected pizzerias, Nella Pizzeria Napoletana, a bright, kitschily appointed Lincoln Park room featuring its own blue-tiled, volcanic rock oven.
Sepia-toned prints of weathered hands working dough adorn the walls in the front, while near the rear hokey full-color shots of Grassano and Harris in a flour fight with a pair of toddlers suggest that their secret weapon is urchins who prep the dough with their bare feet. But the most enjoyable atmospheric feature in the place is the demo mirror angled over the marble work counter, which affords most seats in the house a view of the pie makers in action.
My first pizzas—a classic margherita and a funghi-and-sausage combo made by chefs other than Nella—arrived somewhat elastic and lifeless, undercooked even by Neapolitan standards, where a bit of central soupiness is both expected and treasured. But subsequent pizzas, made by Grassano herself, were another story, with raised, lightly blackened crusts bordering underskirts stippled by constellations of tiny, crispy blisters. These were worthy, foldable delivery vehicles for high-quality toppings like the marinated tuna, olives, and sweet onion of the tonno e cipolla. A special of escarole with olives and capers was overdressed with a bit too much stewy greenery and fresh mozzarella—but still a capital pie. There are more than 20 varieties to choose from, including a handful of stuffed pizzas, along with a selection of forgettable antipasti. Among the pasta and rice specials, a four-cheese risotto may have been the most perfectly cooked example of the form I've ever come across in a Chicago restaurant—soupy, but not a bowl of mush, each grain distinct and al dente.
Will Grassano topple Spacca as the ultimate Neapolitan pizzeria in town? Not before the rest of the kitchen staff gets up to snuff. Until then it's a contest only when la pizzaiola herself has her hands in the dough. —Mike Sula
The owners of Kith & Kin could've hyped their inviting Lincoln Park spot as a gastropub and earned an oxygen-depleting collective yawn. But they didn't, and a stealthy early-December opening has attracted mobs to this otherwise culinarily bereft pocket of the neighborhood.
Chefs David Carrier and Andrew Brochu both worked with or under Grant Achatz at one time or another—the former first at the French Laundry, then at Trio—though there's little that immediately brings to mind those fine-dining icons. Instead what you have is an attractive and affordable menu served in a room that suggests all of the comforts of neighborhood pubbery without resorting to the usual cliches clumsily adopted from the Irish or British. The menu is globally influenced—mussels, for instance, are served in a curried, slightly bitter IPA with a few pieces of grilled, almost sweet naan. There are Mexican and Italian dishes: a deeply satisfying spicy lamb neck stew is billed as pozole, though it's more like birria; a deep bowl of spaghetti carbonara uses house-made noodles. Even French Canada gets a nod, with rillette-like pork creton and the latest entry in the unfortunate high-end poutine trend, this one with a chicken gravy to ruin the perfectly good fries.
The aforementioned creton is one of a number of spreadable "crocks" served with crostini and priced at $5; another contains chicken liver paté with a thick cap of butter. Any two could easily make a swell meal on their own, especially paired with a beer from the list of 26. That simplicity is echoed in a trio of salads and a trio of sandwiches, but the larger plates are what really sucked me in, especially a mahimahi and clam bourride redolent of fennel and a pile of fried chicken thigh confit that went down like the ghostly essence of poultry. There's a small selection of well-made classic cocktails that includes a helluva good Sazerac; the five-spice hot buttered rum could pull double duty as dessert, in place of, say, a slice of fluffy sweet potato pie or the bitter-chocolate-covered banana-cream doughnut. This is the inviting, irresistible place with casually excellent food that every neighborhood deserves. —Mike Sula
New Too: Nine more recent openings
3120 N. Lincoln | 773-525-7005
AMERICAN, BREAKFAST | Breakfast, lunch: Seven Days, Saturday & SUNDAY BRUNCH | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
If bacon has officially jumped the shark, someone forgot to tell the folks behind Bakin' & Eggs (also the owners of Lovely: A Bake Shop). At this new breakfast and lunch spot, you can get it on anything from a burrito to a biscuit—even the waffle involves bacon. It's a good thing it's done well, or the bacon flight might seem a little over the top; as it is, you'd better have either a hearty appetite or plenty of reinforcements if you plan to attack the five large rashers of jalapeño, honey, mesquite, cherry, and maple-pepper bacon. Portion sizes are ample here, and at eight to nine bucks apiece are a good deal as entrees at moderately upscale brunch places go. Even a half order of rosemary-parmesan drop biscuits with sausage gravy and—inevitably—a slice of bacon (available weekends only) is a reasonable-size meal in itself. Pumpkin pancakes, only subtly pumpkiny, were three big, fluffy discs topped with chopped caramelized pecans and served with pear butter, maple syrup, and whipped butter on the side. And while the spinach, mushroom, and Gruyere frittata was more than decent, it was the side of cheesy potatoes that really won me over. Our waiter kept checking to see if everything was "perfect"—a tall order at any restaurant—but we couldn't find any reason to complain. —Julia Thiel