While much of Chicago’s dining scene zigs toward uniformity, two new spots zag.
I’m probably stating the obvious, but it bears repeating at a moment when every chef in in the city declares individuality by putting an egg on every dish in sight: The best restaurants express something true about the people behind them. They feel personal. Unique. And their customers sense that connection. “The usual should be made unusual,” wrote M.F.K. Fisher, the legendary food scribe, in 1949. “Extraordinariness should cloak the ordinary.” If only restaurateurs still read M.F.K. Fisher.
Sari Zernich Worsham and her husband, Scott Worsham, do. So does chef Nick Lacasse. The three industry veterans—cookbook authors, TV personalities, employees at dozens of restaurants from Charlie Trotter’s to Tom Douglas’s Etta’s in Seattle—christened their tiny Lake View café with Fisher’s iconic initials. That’s like naming your son Einstein: a lot to live up to.
But MFK just feels right. It also feels like no other restaurant in Chicago. In stark contrast to the dark, decadent lairs that cover the landscape, the subterranean room is bright and breezy as an Ibiza twilight. Custom pendant lamps dangle over white brick walls decorated with seaside paintings by Scott Worsham’s old high school buddy John Santoro. Delighted couples share Cantabrian salt-cured anchovies on buttered bread at a bar made from a giant sycamore slab. You can almost hear the waves crashing on the bay.
Lacasse’s cooking hits the right notes without pandering. He dusts prawn heads with cornstarch, fries them up crisp, and drizzles them with a nutty salbitxada (a thick yellow Catalan sauce similar to romesco) for an unctuous, irresistible snack. “Put ’em in a bag and serve ’em at a Super Bowl party,” suggested a hungry companion, who confessed he would think twice about sharing such a bag. The pyramid of Manchego and speck croquettes is a tiny tower of flavor, especially after a dip in the accompanying roasted-garlic aïoli.
When a restaurant trusts its ingredients, I’ll follow it anywhere. Look at the simple freshness in a bowl of cold spring peas and sugar snap peas sparked by feta and mint leaves. It’s every bit as exciting as MFK’s showier stuff, such as the sashimi-grade suzuki seviche (try saying that after a cocktail) with a squid-ink tostada and poblano guacamole. And the kitchen makes heavy use of a chrome-top plancha, which turns the lid of a jumbo sea scallop into caramelized gold and keeps the interior silky. Ringed by pickled Fresno chilies and grounded by corn milk grits, it’s a stunner. At $12 a scallop, it ought to be.
When MFK goes big, it doesn’t flinch. The hulking seafood cataplana harbors untold intensity in a tomatoey stew crowded with cobia collar, ridiculously plump clams, shrimp, fennel, and onions. It’s rich enough to feed two Basque fishermen or four Lincoln Parkers. And while you wouldn’t expect it, MFK’s most satisfying dish may be the chicken ballotine. Ten crisp-edged medallions, each bull’s-eyed with a fatty forcemeat and dabbed with chopped herbs, nestle among jus-soaked roasted potatoes. No one does ballotine anymore, at least not this good.
Dessert consists of one thing only: a slice of Basque cake. I know I’m supposed to love its simplicity—a cookie-like crust, a tiny rum-infused cream layer, a dusting of almond flour on top—but I found it understated to the point of blandness.
That’s the thing about MFK. I keep pardoning its flaws, like the unisex bathroom with the door you can’t lock, the lopsided pace of the meals, and the rib-eye cap so fatty that the entire table shakes as guests saw their way through it. Instead, I remember the cheery warmth of the staff and the summery Hell of a Life, a cocktail of rhûm agricole, sweet vermouth, Campari, and lime that knocked me on my ass. And I vow to return.