Restaurant review: mfk
Tribune rating: Three stars
Winter’s gloom isn’t upon us yet, but its imminent arrival is palpable, visible in the lengthening afternoon shadows and in the depressing Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts being shared on Facebook.
When the polar vortex, or whatever we’ll be calling it this winter, arrives, I want you to keep mfk, a 4-month-old spot in East Lakeview, in mind.
It’s a cramped, below-street-level space with all of 750 square feet to call its own, kitchen included, but it doesn’t feel like it. Washed in white walls and bright white chairs, accented with white and gray tile, and optimistically fitted with a ceiling fan, the 28-seat dining room, which includes a 12-seat, sycamore-slab bar, looks like a sunny photo you’d find in Coastal Living. Abetted by genial hosts/owners Scott Worsham and Sari Zernich-Worsham, the restaurant exudes a laid-back summertime vibe that will have you reaching for your flip-flops.
The name, rendered in lower-case letters, looks as though it might be Internet shorthand — more fresh kumquats, or my first kale — but it’s an homage to legendary food writer M.F.K. Fisher; the Worshams went so far as to open their restaurant on July 3, Fisher’s birthday.
With the very capable Nick Lacasse as executive chef, the Worshams have assembled a Spain-inspired, seafood-rich menu of bites, midsize plates and platters that will serve two or more (a couple of them available in half portion). A “from the soil” section offers vegetable dishes made without seafood, gluten or peanuts.
Indeed, some of the nonseafood dishes are stars. I’m thinking of the crunchy/fluffy potato croquettes filled with diced speck and manchego cheese, served alongside a soft scoop of intensely garlicky aioli. “(The croquettes) are basically a vehicle for the garlic aioli,” jokes Lacasse about the dish, “but it’d look bad if we just sent that out with a spoon.” Pork and veal meatballs, stacked over white bean puree, and a vegetable-filled toasted vermicelli dish will send you home happy as well.
But the fun stuff, clearly, lurks among the seafood options. Boquerones, which are cured white anchovies, should begin any meal you have here. Topped with piquillo peppers and some shaved fennel aboard grilled baguette, each two-bite piece (there are three on the plate) gives you sweet, tart and briny flavors and a satisfying crunch. Similar flavor and textural interplay is evident in the ceviche, wherein perfectly dressed slices of suzuki (Japanese sea bass) rest on crunchy squid-ink tostadas with a dab of poblano guacamole and strings of lime zest.
A good communal dish is the duet of spreadable brandade and monkfish liver, served in jars with plenty of grilled baguette and some pickled heirloom carrots; though it’s a seafood pairing, the liver has so much backbone in its mouth feel that the dish plays like a surf and turf.
Plancha-grilled dishes, in medium plate and full entree portions, include impeccably sourced grilled shrimp and clams with citrus butter. I’m mightily impressed with the mild, softly textured squid, presented in a Veracruz preparation with peppers, capers and pickled celery. Fat sea scallops, cooked perfectly (to me, that means slightly underdone), arrive on a bed of scallion risotto, perked up with some pickled Fresno chilies; this dish is priced per scallop, so it can transition from small entree to feast, if you’re so inclined.
There are three platters, and they are mighty, capable of satisfying two or more diners. The star is the fisherman’s stew of shrimp, clams and cobia collars swimming joyfully in a tomato, fennel and onion broth. The cobia makes the dish; it’s a bit of work digging the tasty flesh from the surrounding bone, but the payoff is considerable. The rib-eye cap, a presentation of luxuriously fatty, bright-red slices of grass-fed beef, is a wonderful indulgence. And while one expects a chicken dish in a seafood restaurant to be a throwaway sop to the seafood-averse, the chicken ballotine — a half bird in boneless, forcemeat-stuffed slices — is a crispy-skinned beauty.
When it comes to dessert, your decision-making is simple. There is but one (given the tiny kitchen, it’s a miracle there are any), a crumbly, buttery Basque cake with a pastry-cream center and ground-almond crust. It’s served on a plain plate with no adornment, a stark but tasty reminder of Lacasse’s simplest-is-best ethos.
The wine list isn’t large, but it’s packed with value and not-the-usual-suspects pours. Staffers can make knowledgeable recommendations, and chatting up Scott Worsham, who loves to show off his latest finds, is always rewarding.
Getting into this restaurant is tricky, given its 28-seat capacity and growing popularity. But it has just become easier; the restaurant now accepts phone reservations as much as 30 days in advance. I’d start making my mid-December plans now.
Phil Vettel, Chicago Tribune
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Tuesday-Sunday
Prices: Main courses $20-$24
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Accepted by phone
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory.
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
Watch Phil Vettel’s reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9’s “News at Nine” and on CLTV.