We took a trip down to the 1600 block of Wabash to check out the latest from chef Ryan McCaskey - something I refer to as "casual fine dining." I enjoyed the journey and discovery of an unassuming stand alone building seemingly out of nowhere in the South Loop. You can't quite tell it's a restaurant because the only part visible from the street is the bar area and the windows are frosted and discrete. Once inside you get to see and experience the beautifully done interior with strong elements of L20 and even Alinea (super high ceilings, metal bead "wall" and dark wood and white leather everywhere). I particularly appreciate the spacing of the tables (a simple aspect but so many places pack it in) and the soft cream colored carpet vs. hard floor. The wonderful design flows with and into the service - which is as good as any other five star restaurant in the city (likely the result of Christopher Gerber's influence - he opened front of house at Alinea et. al.). Additionally, the menu is nice and easy to follow (with strong midwest, farm to table aspects and no pronunciation guide needed). There are two sections, one for each course. I'm sure you could get creative and order in any which way, but the message is clear - this is a multi course meal and everyone chooses two of them. And even though most people don't bring cameras to the table like we bloggers, the food is gorgeous with its presentation and worthy of a few shots. I'm a little upset that we didn't try any cocktails because I now find out they are a highlight (and a TOC Eat Out Award Nominee). But why call it casual fine dining? Because you don't get the sense that you have to whisper to talk, or that you must put on your class A suit, and most of all you don't need to bring five credit cards to pay for the meal. They do a wonderful job of providing a five-star experience without the five-start pretentiousness or price tag.
The last piece of the puzzle is the food on the plate, and we enjoyed a lot of what we ate. I am disappointed in the main course selections the most, and that is the main reason our experience wasn't as good as possible. I tried the Deer Isle Shrimp (served with cauliflower, cuttlefish noodles, chorizo, marcona almond, fried spoon bread) and while all the pieces were fascniating and creative, the flavor of the lemon juice and sweet thai chili was too strong to enjoy the entire plate. Erica ordered the highly anticipated waygu beef and it came out luke warm without meaningful flavor (not to mention there was a peculiar long break in the meal before our main course arrived). But even with disappointing dishes, the creativity, precision and beauty are very much apparent and respected.