Chicago is in the midst of a surge in high-ticket tasting menus in restaurants operated by husband-and-wife teams. Chef Noah Sandoval and wife Cara Sandoval opened Oriole earlier this summer. Elske, from Blackbird vets David and Anna Posey, is on its way. And from chef John Shields and pastry chef Karen Urie Shields there's Smyth.
They join an increasingly crowded field populated by vaunted temples to high gastronomy such as Alinea and Grace as well as more relaxed and whimsical operations like 42 Grams, El Ideas, Elizabeth, and Schwa. I'm a bit skeptical that there are enough deep- pocketed fine-dining zealots from here and abroad to sustain this environment, but for now it's a gilded age.
Smyth, I suspect, has staying power, and not just because its high-volume subterranean sister the Loyalist might sell enough cocktails and cheeseburgers to support the doings upstairs, where menus are $135 for eight courses or $195 for 12, with beverage pairings for $85 and $125 respectively.
That's because the Shieldses' current menu, which leans gently toward the oceanic and the Japanese, with gutsy ingredients and savory desserts, shows more than enough originality and imagination to keep it in mind long after you've dropped such serious coin on the ticket.
The Shieldses met while working at Charlie Trotter's. She came from Tru. He moved on to Alinea. In 2008 they both decamped for Appalachia and opened Town House in Chilhowie, Virginia, 343 miles from Washington, D.C., from where a good many of their guests made pilgrimages. Banking on subsequent national acclaim, Smyth can probably count on a good many of its own destination diners here in flyover country.
The room is considerably more warm and inviting than that of the Loyalist. Oriental rugs soften the floor, and tall windows let in the light on one of the most visually accessible open kitchens in the city, where you can watch cooks tweeze the briny sea beans atop the nasturtium-cream-garnished sunchoke chip that serves as the first bite. That promising amuse is somewhat undermined by the seeming absurdity of its successor: a shot of warm seawater harboring a single leaf of sea lettuce. Still, the combined salinity of the two mouthfuls primes the palate for what's to follow: a succession of texturally unorthodox presentations, augmented and often built on produce from the 20-acre downstate farm growing more than a hundred different varieties of herbs, flowers, and vegetables on behalf of the two restaurants.
That farm contributes to two astonishing tomato-based dishes on the opening menu. One starting the meal finds a briny Beausoleil oyster swimming in a savory tomato slush punctuated by satisfying pops from stray fish roe. The other is a tomato-peach sorbet with apricot-kernel liqueur that ends the meal bedecked with a riot of brilliantly colored and spicy flowers.
Shields isn't afraid to confront his guests between these two bright bookends, say with an herbal salad of softly cartilaginous duck tongues, their appealing squishiness offset by crunchy black walnuts, all dressed in a jus made from roasted squid. Or Dungeness crab with foie gras and kani miso, in which the crab's custardy innards go down easy with the help of crunchy crackers made from reduced dashi.
The richness of a sumptuous, ivory- colored grilled kanpachi belly bathing in beurre blanc boosted with the glutamic power of the fermented rice kogi is balanced by a medley of fresh green herbs. A humble scrap of charred white cabbage conceals sweet lobster drenched in reduced whey and comes with a dense, spherical beef-fat brioche that should last anyone through the next several courses.
Meatier dishes are introduced by the squabs that hang above the kitchen's wood grill; on the plate they're dressed in pineapple sage leaves and served with a duo of fresh and fermented pea miso, an herb-forward dish sweetened with reduced grape juice. Lamb saddle brings the proteins to a climax of unmatched intensity—its accompaniments of black garlic sauce and seaweed marmite should be used sparingly.
From there Urie Shields enters the fray with a kind of energy bar pressed from chocolate, huckleberries, and preserved shiitake mushrooms, then a light, one-bite honey-custard tart. It's hardly preparation for one of the most astonishing desserts I've seen this year: a glistening egg yolk, colored like an alien sun, cured for 24 hours in black licorice molasses until it achieves a dense, candylike texture. This visually arresting orb with the taste and texture of rich caramel is surrounded by a figurative albumen of thick alabaster yogurt, all concealing a black raspberry understory—a miraculous dish that could easily pull a brunch shift.
If you opt for pairings—and you should—you'll be treated to wines as varied as a nutty amber-colored Slovenian Rebula (aka Ribolla), a white Burgundy made from Aligoté rather than chardonnay grapes, and an herbal rhubarb amaro at the finish that'll clear your sinuses and prime your alimentary canal for breakfast.
Smyth is operating with the Tock ticketing system, but currently there are enough open seats that if the computer rebuffs you, you might just try calling. It's worth a shot to experience the wonderful and occasionally weird return of these two talented chefs before the place gets truly packed. v