In general, people go to steak houses for two reasons: for work, or to celebrate something. Technically, I was at the Barn in Evanston for the first reason, but everybody else was there for the second. The enormous wire chandelier covered with little white bulbs like a Christmas tree made the message clear: we were all here to enjoy one another's company, and many of us were also going to eat enormous slabs of meat. Not just eat them—we were going to savor them, because a perfectly cooked steak should be a rare pleasure, associated with the people we love best, not compensation for being forced to endure the corporate ritual of kissing up to the out-of-town boss.
The Barn is Amy Morton's second restaurant, after Found Kitchen & Social House, which Sam Worley declared "Best Everything" in the Reader's 2013 Best of Chicago issue, and it is a worthy follow-up. The two restaurants share an aesthetic of dark woods and offbeat decor (on the wall of the Barn there's a delightful life-size portrait of an alpaca named George, because why not?) and, more significantly, a chef, Nicole Pederson (formerly of Lula Café), who knows how to do amazing things with steak and vegetables.
But while Found is the sort of restaurant that beckons you in from the sidewalk, the Barn is something else entirely. First, you'll need a reservation, unless you eat on a Fort Lauderdale or a Madrid meal schedule—that is, dinner before 6 PM or after 9. Second, it's nowhere near a sidewalk. It's in a former stable in an alley just west of the Davis Street train station. You would not randomly stumble upon it unless it's your habit to wander the back alleys of Evanston. (The history of this stable, which used to be the headquarters of Borden Dairy's delivery service, is told in detail on the back of the menu. "Wow," one of my dining companions said after reading it. "It must have been such a pain to bring this place up to restaurant code.")
Once you push your way in through the heavy blackout curtain blocking the front door, though, you feel mildly victorious, maybe the way people in the 1920s did when they managed to find the speakeasy. Or maybe I just thought of a speakeasy because of the old-school touches around the place, like the red leather banquettes up in what used to be the hayloft, the brief menu of classic cocktails, and especially the salads, fish, and desserts that are tossed, deboned, and flamed, respectively, on little carts set up tableside.
The best food at the Barn is brown, starting with the sweetbreads and ending with the chocolate mousse. The sweetbreads are ideal for people who think that sweetbreads are bread. They're served with capers, potatoes, and cipollini onions, all covered in a lemony brown butter sauce. It's true that lemons and brown butter are a magical combination that can make just about anything taste good, but the meat is also perfectly cooked, tender and slightly caramelized, with just the slightest metallic aftertaste to remind you what you're actually eating. The mousse, meanwhile, is light and not too sweet, topped with chopped candied hazelnuts for texture. In between are the roasted maitake mushrooms, which come as a side, and give a perfect hit of umami with a full, meaty texture. As I ate the final bite, I felt genuine sadness.
And then there are the steaks. I would be remiss here if I didn't mention that Amy Morton's late father, Arnie, was the Morton of the minichain Morton's the Steakhouse, but heredity alone cannot account for her and Pederson's ability to source such excellent meat and Pederson's skill at cooking it.
The steaks they've chosen are prime heritage Angus. They're not hung up in a special refrigerated room or aged for a specified length of time. There are just three cuts to choose from: New York strip and rib eye, both with the bone in, and filet mignon. The preparation for all three is the same: a simple red-wine demi-glace (as if making a good demi-glace doesn't take hours), though you can also have a side of bearnaise if you like. There's no layer of black char, no crust of potatoes or duxelles, nothing to distract you from the meat, which is uniformly buttery-tender throughout, without a hint of gristle. It tastes of blood and minerals and salt, with a warm coating of fat (more so in the rib eye than in the strip). This sounds disgusting, I realize, but good red meat is probably supposed to remind us of the victory of a fresh kill, and if we're honest, that's why we love it so much. You would be foolish to order anything else.
Still, if you must, the pork chop with apple-hazelnut relish is OK, as long as you don't mess it up for yourself by tasting somebody else's steak. The bison Bolognese, however, is a bizarre misstep. Bolognese sauce is usually made with pork and veal, which create a nice emulsion of fat that gives the sauce a smooth texture and adds an extra layer of flavor. Bison, however, is a lean meat, so it doesn't render that extra bit of fat. I'm sorry to be so pedantic here, but the Barn's bison Bolognese is an object lesson in what happens if you try to make a lean Bolognese: it tastes, as my dining companion complained, "like dog food." (He was doubly bitter because I got the steak that night. Restaurant reviewing can be a ruthless business.)
It's conventional wisdom that an orgy of meat should be broken up with vegetables so you feel more like a civilized creature than a meat-gorging beast. The Little Gem salad with creamy Dijon dressing isn't likely to inspire the same passion as the steak, but it is nicely balanced, with pumpkin seeds that add an unexpected, nutty flavor. The creamed Swiss chard is more delicious than any bitter green has the right to be, probably because the cream cancels out any nutritional value from the chard. Still, vegetables are vegetables, right?
Service is friendly and ranges from leisurely to slow. The seating upstairs in the loft is quieter, but the extra privacy means you may be neglected by your server for long stretches of time. During one of those long stretches, though, it turned out our server was in the kitchen tracking down the provenance of the butter on the dinner rolls. This is extremely valuable information because that butter, from the Farmhouse Kitchens Cooperative of Bonduel, Wisconsin, is good, creamy and perfectly salted.
When I think back on my meals at the Barn, I will think of the steak. And also the mushrooms. But I will also remember the feeling of sitting at a brightly lit table in a big, dark room with people I adore, looking out at other tables full of people talking and laughing and enjoying being together. It felt like a break from regular life. That was something to celebrate. v