I don’t know about you, but it’s not often I’m whipping up grouper en papillote with fennel, wild mushrooms, and herbs over here in my home kitchen.
So when chef Benjamin Brittsan describes his American contemporary cuisine as “simple, rustic, just good home cooking,” I have to smile a bit. And attribute his modesty to the fact that he dislikes, as he says, “pretentiousness.”
Yes, he’s got some straightforward, homespun dishes on the rotating seasonal menu at Benjamin, his new Highland Park eatery. But there are also chef-y touches all over the local-as-possible menu. After all, how many home cooks cure their own gravlax or sear wagyu beef under a hot Himalayan salt brick?
But Brittsan — who has cooked under Rick Tramonto, Gale Gand and Art Smith — isn’t interested in producing “foufou” food “where it’s three bites and you’re done with a course.”
“That’s fine, but it’s not everyday eating,” he says.
Instead, he created a menu “that was affordable for everybody with top-quality products — without being pretentious.”
“I’m letting Mother Nature show herself off,” he says. “The food itself has so much flavor, you don’t have to do a lot to it.”
Indeed unaffected in his tastes, the chef admits to having a penchant for McDonald’s French fries, nachos and other proletarian fare. And he finds amusing ways to work riffs on these foods onto the menu.
So sloppy joes are reinvented as Goose Island root beer-glazed bison brisket “sliders” with winter veggie slaw ($12). And cheese fries ($11) are a massive heap of hand-cut frites topped with melted local white cheddar curds, bacon lardons and wagyu beef gravy.
But the menu isn’t just a collection of cleverosities. Heavy on its “small plates and starters,” Benjamin also features crowd-pleasers in its mid-length salad/soup and entrée sections.
“They are the things I want to eat and I want to cook,” says Brittsan, who is keenly aware of his customers’ wants and needs. Particularly since North Shore diners have a reputation for being, well, highly discriminating.
“We’re kind of collaborating,” he says of the personal twists he puts on the food at his customers’ request.
The Husband and I dined at Benjamin recently with low-maintenance Highland Parkers Matt and Karen. We appreciated our servers’ patience — and willingness to return several times — as we negotiated how much, when and what to order.
The group took the hint — from the bartender to our server — to open with pesto gnocchi gratin ($12). Brittsan bakes his spongy house-made dumplings with pistachio pesto, truffle and pecorino and parmesan cheeses, creating a posh, yet still comforting, take on mac n’ cheese.
I voted for those “awesome” (our waiter’s words) bison sloppy joes on buttery mini-brioche buns, and would have eaten all four of those tender, delectable barbecued bites if reason and good manners hadn’t stopped me. I must admit that I was a bit skeptical when Karen suggested the cheese fries. But the decision proved a good one, and I found myself repeatedly going back to that wonderfully gooey mound, despite my best intentions.
A native Michigander, Karen opted next for the Benjamin signature salad ($10) a sizable mix of farm-fresh veggies and greens with local goat cheese, hazelnuts and dried Michigan cherries tossed with citrus vinaigrette. The Husband assisted me with roast pumpkin, blood orange and frisée ($10). The deconstructed salad also included pumpkin seeds, chervil, milky house-made ricotta toasts with a dusting of curry and a glaze of pomegranate balsamic vinaigrette.
Selecting our entrees proved laughably complex, as so many dishes sounded good to the four of us. Ultimately, The Husband and I shared the grouper ($25) and a braised lamb shank ($24). Matt told me to dig into his Miller Amish chicken pot pie ($19) at my discretion. And Karen encouraged me to sample her cedar-planked Jail Island salmon ($24) with house-made (detecting a theme here) Michigan cherry barbecue sauce.
The Husband’s aromatic fish was a light and healthy contrast to my rich and beefy shank. The enormous shank was served with glazed home-cut carrots and celery and plated with cooked lentils. Its tomatoey stew was every bit a meal as the tender shank itself.
Served with brown butter-dill roasted cauliflower and rapini, Karen’s barbecued fish presented a nice balance of smoky, sweet and salty. Oh, and then there was Matt’s pot pie. The piping hot crock held no ordinary Swansonesque pie. Brittsan fills his, topped with a cheddary butter-laden puffy pastry, with seasonal root vegetables and spoon-licking sweet potato mash.
Okay, so you might think we’d skip dessert after this fall feast. But our server reminded us that Brittsan has a strong pastry background. (As previously noted, he trained under pastry queen Gand.) So after a brief group summit, we sent for the dessert menu.
Showing great restraint, we selected two of the four offerings. Chocolate mousse and [Michigan] cherry trifle ($9) is Brittsan’s spin on the British classic. But he layers dark ganache cake with house-made cherry compote and tucks crunchy, salty pretzels into the mix. Brittsan’s signature banana carmelo ($9) suffered only from the fact that I was beyond full at this point. He perfectly caramelizes almost-ripe bananas in a bourbon-vanilla extract and serves them in a house-made crepe cup with cake batter ice cream, warm butterscotch sauce and (whole!) candied pistachios.
Brittsan attributes his deftness with desserts to being “well-versed in every aspect of the kitchen.”
Lucky for us — and the North Shore.
1849 Second Street
Highland Park, Illinois 60035