Music is an essential element at Ada Street, the new tavern/small-plates eatery from Chicago’s DMK, David Morton and chef Michael Kornick’s hospitality group.
There’s a “vinyl library,” where diners are encouraged to thumb through the always-growing record collection. Diners can be found singing along to the discs that spin nonstop behind the bar, where signature cocktails are named after songs and famous musicians. Heck, Kornick may even order up an album from Reckless Records if you request one he doesn’t already have.
And when you ask chef Zoe Schor about the inspiration behind her “upscale, rustic American” menu, it’s no wonder Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to have Fun” kind of gets stuck in your head.
“We’re trying to give people food that is recognizable and craveable — at a reasonable price,” says the former California chef (Bouchon, Beso, Craft). “I feel it’s important that it’s approachable, and people can relate to it.
“We try and have some fun…. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Schor is so laid-back, she frequently comes out from behind the open kitchen to deliver a plate, check on guests or just say “hi” to her friends and family who keep popping in.
“It’s like one big dinner party, and everybody’s hanging,” she says.
Because the restaurant is so new — Ada Street opened in early March — Schor and Kornick are still playing around with the concise but growing menu of “bar bites,” salumi, craft cheeses, veggies and proteins. But a sense of whimsy and playfulness is apparent in the dishes that the chefs have already created, both individually and through their collaborative efforts.
“For me, it feels like a bar with really great food,” says Kornick of the 48-seat eatery. “It’s bar food in the modern sense. The bar foods I grew up on were pickled eggs and Doritos.”
A take on pickled eggs could be in the making — after all, seasonal house-pickled vegetables already appear on the menu. But I wouldn’t go looking for nacho cheese Doritos anytime soon. And who would want them anyway — when Schor offers “fun” snack foods such as crispy black-eyed peas ($4) ?
Sprinkled with a savory seasoning blend, those little legumes — bam! — didn’t stand a chance with our eating crew. Skipping only the salumi and cheese, The Family powered its way through a good portion of the menu.
Kudos to The Girl for insisting on the crisp and airy polenta fries ($6), which can stand on their own but are made all the better with the addition of Schor’s chipotle purée, a hot and smoky house-made riff on Heinz 57.
“We sneak a little bourbon out of Tim’s bar,” says Schor, revealing the secret ingredient that she nabs from spirits director Tim Lacey.
Schor also offers a few off-the-menu specials. So we shared crisp-tender spring asparagus ($4) with a clean and simple EVOO and blood orange vinaigrette. We also sampled sweet, juicy mussels ($9) floating in a moppable Konig Pilsener, butter and herb sauce. And we bowed to the temptation of the bonus special, which is offered as a tableside option. That evening, it was a fluke crudo, once again dressed up with those ubiquitous blood oranges — the day’s market darling.
“It’s a fun way to have a little interaction,” says Schor of the passed specials.
Still ravenous, my crew was ready to move on to bigger things.
The unstoppable Eating Machine required a double dose of “today” — Ada Street’s slightly larger small plates. The EM brought Schor’s fun take on fried chicken — Southern fried quail ($11) — to the table. The unexpectedly meaty bird was served with greens and down-home bacon gravy.
Next up for The EM was homey duck confit ($10) — also my selection. The plate featured bits of the gamey bird mixed in with orecchiette-style pasta and was topped with fresh parmigiano and a big, fat oozy poached egg.
The always carnivorous Connoisseur couldn’t resist the Rain Crow Ranch grass-fed sirloin ($24), gently drizzled with aged balsamic and brown butter. And The Girl was drawn to the evening’s special — buttery gnocci ($9) with market-fresh fava beans and asparagus.
Everybody jockeyed for The Husband’s favorite — octopus ($12), which has quickly emerged as Ada Street’s top seller, Schor says. Neither tough nor chewy — as octopus is often wont to be — this grilled, lemon-tinged critter comes with cold cannellini beans and mouth-warming Tabasco mash.
“We put a lot of thought and work into [the octopus],” Schor says. “I want to make sure the octopus is the star of the dish.”
Ada Street’s dessert list is short but sweet. Offerings during our visit included Schor’s take on a Catalan treat — bread with chocolate and olive oil ($7). Here, thick and dark chocolate spread was dusted with sea salt, set atop an olive oil puddle and served with slivers of toasted ciabatta. Also up was a Greek yogurty buttermilk panna cotta ($6) with chocolate-ginger crumbs. But the big hit with our group was the finger-burning fresh brioche donuts ($7) served with a PB&J-style port wine caramel sauce. They were so nice that when no one was looking, The Eating Machine ordered them twice.
1664 North Ada Street
Chicago, Illinois 60642