I was suffering from mental gout two and a half years ago when the Gold Coast's Maple & Ash opened in the midst of a citywide steak-house glut. When I proved unable to face another expense-account feedlot, Julia Thiel soldiered on in my place as I treated my symptoms with white rice and raw ginger.
She noticed, right off the bat, the $145 "I Don't Give a F*ck" tasting menu, which seems to sum up everything you need to know about the kind of guest the new What If Syndicate was gunning for.
Yes, Maple & Ash is priced out of the reach of most Chicagoans, but the group had tapped chef Danny Grant of the late, great Ria and Balsan, and he managed to establish the restaurant as a newcomer that distinguished itself from steak-house orthodoxy by being worth it for a special occasion—if you gave a f*ck.
And if you still do, it was compelling news that the group was opening Etta, in Bucktown, a less prohibitively priced outing that applies the steak house's live-fire approach to a less meaty, more Mediterranean menu of pastas, pizzas, vegetables—and even a few alluring high-protein animals for the bloodmouths among us.
But are we now in the midst of an open-hearth glut? Seems like over the last few years the restaurant scene has been swept by forest fires with the proliferation of the likes of Hyde Park's the Promontory and the West Loop's Roister, El Che, and Lena Brava, et al. Is Etta just Pacific Standard Time northwest?
There are similarities. Grant's tiled wood-burning pizza oven operates in full view of a dining room that sits in the footprint left by the long-gone Southern (founded by What If partner Jim Lasky). A twinkly rooftop opened in the waning days of summer, and on most nights Etta was booked a week out, thick with groves of stick-thin hipsters, stilettoed blond divorce parties, and the odd Wicker Park family unit trying to get some pizza in Caitlyn and Tanner before bedtime.
But Etta's appeal cuts across demographics. There's a smoky ghost in the air, and Grant lays a char on much of the menu, which is alive with bright flashes of sweet, acidic, and glutamic flavors. The omnipresent meatball starter features crusty-topped, blackened pork orbs flecked with chile and smothered in a thick tomato sauce with a lattice of browned pecorino atop. A crock of "bubbling" shrimp simmers in a crucible filled with tomato, mint, bread crumbs, and butter that almost takes on a cheeselike texture in the heat, though that treatment does no favors for the petite oysters obliterated by liquid tomato butter.
Dishes such as these are served with thin, crackerlike "hearth-roasted bread" (um, pita?) that's tasty but not terribly useful for sopping up the sauces left after a chewy charred octopus in a mint-and-vinegar-laced Viet take on panzanella, or a molten crock of buttery potato puree lashed with chicken drippings.
But the real achievement in terms of bread at Etta is the lovely pizzas with heat-stippled underskirts and soft, almost Neapolitan nuclei. Among them is one that may yet prove to be Chicago's greatest contribution to the pizza arts, not deep-dish or tavern style, but "Fire Pie," topped simply with a judicious application of finely minced giardiniera alongside guanciale, chile de arbol, and sweet Jimmy Nardello peppers.
Pastas are rich and often dressed just to the point of excess. Tightly coiled al dente cavatelli in a sauce too wet and tomatoey to accurately be called bolognese is nonetheless a greedy pleasure, and the same goes for soft squid-ink mafaldine wallowing in nduja butter and piled high with clams, crabmeat, and garlicky toasted focaccia crumbs.
Larger-format plates offer some hints of Maple & Ash-style excess in the "pig picnic" of pork belly and shoulder and the menu's sole steak, a $68 rib-eye cap. But others offer simpler satisfactions: a whole roasted branzino, skin crisp as a chip, silky flesh at home with lemon, butter, and capers (and priced $16 cheaper than its counterpart at the steak house). Lush lamb practically drips from neck bones oozing fat and marrow, beautifully balanced with a yogurt-slashed arugula salad and some murkily delicious green, wax, and runner beans, providing soulful reassurance rarely offered on the Gold Coast.
Aya Fukai's desserts for now are mostly as ephemeral as the summer, including in late August a shortcake that seemed like it had languished too long before serving but was perked up with blueberries and whipped cream. Tannic Earl Grey ice cream reins in the sugary attitude of a juicier raspberry galette.
The wine list hovers mostly in the $40 to $50 range, while even more affordable house reds, white, and rosés are available by the full and three-quarters liter. Cocktails are sometimes indistinguishable from each other, with thick brown-and-stirred drinks like the bourbon-based (ew) Banana Hammock not much separated from the rummy Have Mercy. Same goes for fruitier mixes like the rye-and-masala Golden Triangle and the just nominally herbaceous Green With Envy—gin, basil, and matcha subsumed by simple syrup. They're all sweet.
Bucktown and Wicker Park have been swallowing $12 cocktails since the Violet Hour opened 12 years ago, so I'm in no way arguing that Etta is some kind of oasis of in a food desert. But relative to the excess of Maple & Ash, it's still a relatively good value—and a lower gateway to appreciating the work of one of the city's more talented chefs. v