Note: This post was originally published February 8, 2012.
Don’t expect Ryan McCaskey to experiment with leather as an ingredient or turn black pepper white to see how the change affects its flavor.
Unlike some chefs, “I’m not out to reinvent anything,” says McCaskey, who admits he’s not “the most progressive guy” on Chicago’s world-class dining scene.
Okay, so perhaps beet salad and lobster pie aren’t the most avant-garde-sounding dishes. But I patently refuse to let McCaskey — who just opened the lovely Acadia in Chicago’s South Loop — undersell himself. Mark my words in Sharpie, this upscale American contemporary eatery is going to be big, despite its (currently) oddball location on an empty stretch of South Wabash Avenue.
McCaskey — who racked up major chef points at Courtright’s, Tizzi Melloul and Rushmore — is currently producing some of the most wonderfully executed, delicious food in town.
So when he says things like, “It is, at the end of the day, a beet salad,” you kind of have to take him with a grain of coarsely ground sea salt.
You see, I ordered that beet salad ($10) mostly to humor my friend Massimo, since I’m not a huge beet fan. And, yes, its components — frisée, arugula, goat cheese, fennel — are conventional. But his preparation is not. McCaskey takes tiny vanilla-scented roasted beets and plates them with orange purée, beet gel, little piles of Ocumare chocolate “soil,” and a soft “chevre noodle” that squiggles across the plate. I never knew the dreaded beet had such incredible potential.
Another noteworthy starter was McCaskey’s multi-flavored and textured sunchoke velouté ($8). With notes of tart, sweet and savory (lemon, grape, pancetta), the creamed soup was topped with an unexpected sprinkle of crunchy chai granola.
McCaskey knew it was risky to open an upscale restaurant in a shaky economy, but decided he wanted to go for his dream. And he made some wise choices that seem to be paying off.
“I want [Acadia] to be upscale and fine dining, but also approachable,” McCaskey says. “I don’t want our patrons to feel like they have to act, dress or even order a certain way.”
Gone are some of the things — paycheck-busting prix fixe menus and 100-page wine lists — that scare diners away. Yet McCaskey has kept many of the “amenities and details” that foodophiles adore. These include an amuse-bouche (such as cardamom-coffee froth-dolloped butternut squash soup), dainty hot biscuits and sea salt butter that magically appear from the kitchen at the precise moment you are craving bread, and adorable mignardises (complimentary sweet bites). McCaskey even gives guests a little take-home “goodie bag” at the end of the meal.
Many of the menu items — and the restaurant’s name — are an ode to coastal Maine, where the chef has vacationed since childhood.
“The lobster, scallops, and the mussels we serve at the bar haven’t even been out of the water for 24 hours,” says McCaskey, who is personal friends with his Maine lobsterman.
Some of the New England tributes are obvious, such as the the bar menu’s lobster roll. But many show up in little ways, like the chowder and lightly breaded fried clam that — along with cabbage, leeks and bacon vinaigrette — accompanied The Husband’s outstandingly fresh black cod ($30).
I went with McCaskey’s Stonington lobster pie ($34), a dish that he reimagined from his Rushmore days.
To call this “pie” sublime is an understatement, and it’s obvious why it has fast become the restaurant’s number-one seller. McCaskey gives you the very best parts of these sugar-sweet lobsters — a nicely portioned shelled tail and two claws — and artfully lays them out among carrots, pearl onions and pommes dauphine. A lobster-infused sauce (which McCaskey spent years perfecting) is then poured tableside over the dish, which is capped with a flaky sour cream pastry disc.
“A simple bowl lobster of lobster bisque” consumed as a teen at Jean Joho’s famed Everest Room was one of the inspirations behind the piquant sauce. “The memory of the taste of it is still in my head,” McCaskey says.
The tight menu also brings out other aspects of the chef’s eclectic culinary background. Winter vegetable tagine ($22) — an entrée that our group shared as a starter — has a Moroccan flair that recalls McCaskey’s days at the former Tizzi Melloul. Served with fregula, a couscous-like pasta, the tagine was seasoned with cinnamon and cilantro and featured a comforting mix of olives, roasted butternut squash and carrots. Chicken presse ($25) is reportedly a nod to Thomas Keller, one of the chef’s influences. At our server’s suggestion, my friend Cara selected the literally pressed chicken, which — accompanied by truffle bread budding, porcini mushrooms and more — aims higher than your average roast chicken dish.
From McCaskey’s brief dessert list we selected passion fruit toffee ($10) — which included a tropical assortment of moist banana coffee cake, custardy passion fruit, cardamom-lime meringue and coconut sorbet. Milk chocolate cremeaux ($10) paired classic chocolate pudding with candied huckleberries, hazelnuts, puckery Meyer lemon bits and buttermilk sponge cake.
McCaskey goodie bags serve as both “a thank you” and as a remembrance of an evening well spent at Acadia, he says. Although I was happy to enjoy my little square of cinnamon cake with tea the following morning, it was a meal I won’t soon forget — with or without that bite.
1639 South Wabash Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60616