If you ask chef John Wayne Formica the age old question, “How does your garden grow?” He might answer — sans rhyme — with “red leaf lettuce, rainbow carrots, parsley and cilantro.”
But that’s all subject to change, depending on what’s blooming in the rooftop meadow and hanging gardens at Homestead, West Town’s new green-focused eatery.
Formica (Sunda, C-House) incorporates just-picked Homestead produce — along with ingredients procured from offsite organic farms and farmers’ markets — into his seasonal, American contemporary fare.
“I consider myself a world chef,” says Formica, whose gorgeously presented dishes feature global flavors, including Middle Eastern, Asian and Italian.
The chef’s Lebanese-Italian background, world travels and international training all contribute to his culinary style, he says. So diners shouldn’t be surprised to find, for example, a Lebanese twist on impossibly fresh lamb tartare or an Asian spin on spicy Amish chicken wings.
“It’s fresh food, fresh ingredients. I’m not messing with it so much. I’m doing classic dishes using classic techniques….,” says Formica, who eschews modern cooking trends and doesn’t use, say, a sous vide.
Still, the chef — who also goes by “The Duke” and blogs at travelingcowboychef.com — considers himself “forward thinking.”
In addition to creating interesting takes on familiar dishes, “I look for one-of-a-kind, unique products that nobody else is using,” Formica says.
Take bee pollen, which Formica dusts over his Homestead meadow salad. “You don’t see a lot of people garnishing with bee pollen.”
You also don’t find many chefs at this type of laid-back, comfortable eatery putting so much effort into plating their creations. “I’ve always had an arty eye for color and an attention to detail,” says Formica, who may top an item with the tiniest of curlicued chives or the most perfectly arranged edible flowers.
Despite his photogenic presentations, the dishes themselves “are not pretentious,” he says.
“It’s not ritzy or fancy [food]…. They look great, but they still look edible.”
My photographer/friend Kathy and I can vouch for both the beauty and edibility of Formica’s fare. After our shoot, Kathy and I grabbed a table on the outdoor patio and began — with assistance from our incredibly fun/funny and exceptionally handsome waiter, Kevin — selecting dishes from The Duke’s concise collection of “from the meadow,” “from the water” and “from the land” offerings.
Kevin started us off with an amuse-bouche of Formica’s house-made Korean kimchee. The hot and garlicky mix of Napa cabbage, cukes, Korean chiles and more was served on a tiny bed of cooling meadow greens.
It was a nice touch when Kevin pointed to the precise spot where the greens had been picked. (The menu also features a do-it-yourself meadow diagram that informs diners what’s blooming at each location in the 1,000-square foot planting bed.)
The Homestead meadow salad ($9) — which Formica calls “the embodiment of the meadow” — was a given for Kathy and me. During our visit, this always-changing mix showcased an array of house-grown produce that included arugula, parsley, cilantro, cat mint, sprouts, cucumbers and lovely edible flower petals. There were also house-pickled tomatoes, carrots and more in this sweet-bitter-salty toss, which Formica kissed with a touch of honey-pomegranate vinaigrette.
Crispy vegetable tempura ($9) was another must-try, as it also features a daily selection of meadow veggies. Sheathed in puffs of tempura batter, our platter sported yellow and purple carrots, baby zucchini, shitake caps and garlic scape.
Formica pairs the vegetables with two aiolis — kicky Sriracha chili and fresh-squeezed lemon with locally produced honey. But I recommend sampling some sauce-free bites to taste the full- on flavor of the garden.
Deconstructed salmon and pickles ($12) flaunts melt-in-your-mouth, house-cured salmon, which Formica plates with a variety of his house-pickled vegetables, meadow greens and a line of perky Chinese five-spice powder. Following Kevin’s excellent advice, Kathy and I tasted each element separately before mixing them together into one multi-flavored, textured salad.
When a waiter tells you that the seared scallops ($16) are so delicious “he would punch a nun for them,” well, one is inclined to believe him. And indeed, Homestead’s were outstanding. Cylinders of tender perfection, the naturally sweet and meaty scallops were dotted with two types of salty caviar — free-ranched Kentucky paddlefish and citrusy finger lime. During our visit, Formica was serving them atop a warm, creamy sunchoke purée.
We finished off with The Duke’s sure-to-be-signature lamb tartare ($17). Clearly, raw, finely chopped meat does not appeal to everybody.
But tartare aficionados surely will appreciate Formica’s Middle Eastern treatment of this fresh spiced lamb loin, which he accompanies with authentic tabbouleh, tahini aioli and salty house-made chickpea crisps.
The tartare “really takes me back to my childhood,” says Formica, who spent time as a youngster cooking with his beloved grandmother. “It’s a humble approach to my roots.”
Homestead currently offers three desserts.
And Formica is particularly enthusiastic about the strawberry granita ($8). Kathy and I did enjoy this extravaganza of rose-hinted strawberry shaved ice, strawberry sorbet, chewy chunks of strawberry gelee and house-pickled strawberries.
But we were even more smitten with pastry chef Amanda Cline’s BBBCCC cake — Formica’s acronym for beer, bacon, bourbon, coffee, caramel and chocolate cake ($8).
This sweet-salty-smoky killer tops chocolate-coffee stout cake with salted caramel gelato and bourbon-maple candied bacon.
All of which can be dipped in an accompanying pool of chocolate-coffee stout anglaise.
“It’s a crazy insane [combination],” Formica says. “And it works.”
Indeed. One might even be tempted to punch a nun for a bite.
1924 W. Chicago Ave, 2nd floor
Chicago, IL 60622