The Black Sheep (Chicago): Chef-musician James Toland rocks it out at his new fine-dining venture

Chef James Toland prepares his imaginative  American contemporary dishes with the utmost attention to detail.   Photo by Alex Janowski

Closed effective 9/21/11

Yes, he’s passionate about punk rock.  But in the kitchen, rocker-chef James Toland also exhibits the dedication and discipline of a classical musician.

The punk guitarist-vocalist and former Lockwood chef de cuisine recently opened The Black Sheep in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood.  And while many of his American contemporary creations are antiestablishment — his cold English pea soup, for example, comes garnished with sour cherries and vanilla powder rather than the predictable mint — he approaches his work with the seriousness and intensity of a classic fine-dining chef.

Toland equates “simple” with “lazy.”  Photo by Alex Janowski

“Simple is just another word for lazy,” says the no-holds-barred Toland, taking a jab at his contemporaries who produce more straightforward cuisine.

Conversely, Toland — who is a member of the all-star punk band, The Black Sheep Band — seems to thrive on complexity.  And he considers many factors (flavor profiles, color, texture, geometry and more) as he develops and creates the dishes on his limited but engaging menu.

“Everything on the plate has to be great, the best version possible,” says Toland, who admires such noted chefs as Alain Ducasse, Heston Blumenthal and Charlie Palmer.  “I’m not cooking from the hip.”

Clearly, as it took a team of three attractive and pleasant black-clad young women to explain the intricacies of each artfully presented dish we ordered during our visit.

Forget plain old boring bread.  Toland followed up a palate-tickling amuse-bouche (ours featured fresh redfish collar, asparagus, and dill-lemon cream) with his version of freshly baked (gruyère and pancetta) popovers, of which we were tempted to request more.

A single creation may include numerous ingredients prepared in a variety of ways.  Photo courtesy of The Black Sheep

Instead, we delved into starters.  My youngest — hereafter known as “The Girl” — selected marinated clams ($12) with sardines, octopus and Alaskan king crab.  Simple enough, right?  Yet each component of the dish was carefully and thoughtfully crafted.  A tangy and plump freshly shucked clam was marinated in Pedro Ximénez sherry vinegar, shallots and herbs. Salt-cured sardines were served with fresh milk crème fraiche.  Tender octopus was slow-braised with red wine, fennel and fennel seed.  And Toland’s “super fresh” crab was accompanied with a drizzle of smoked red pepper sauce.  I think I got it all, but I may have easily missed an ingredient or preparation description or two.

As for me, I opened with Toland’s take on English pea soup ($8), and found that the vanilla powder added depth and complexity to this refreshing cold appetizer.  My only complaint – I wanted more and found myself scraping the bottom of the bowl to get at the last streaks.  At my urging, The Husband ordered snails ($12).  Here, Toland forgoes the traditional garlic and butter preparation and instead presents delicate snails in a crunchy fennel and apple-flecked porridge.

Menu items focus on quality and craftsmanship.  Photo courtesy of The Black Sheep

I have to admit that I was glad we had The Girl with us rather than my eldest, The Eating Machine.  As Toland and I discussed, The Black Sheep doesn’t offer Buca di Beppo-sized portions, instead opting to focus on quality and craftsmanship over quantity.

“If you want a 14-ounce T-bone, go to a steak house,” Toland says.

Well then.  That being said, The Girl picked a satisfying and flavorful chicken thigh ($24) with bacon purée and Brussels sprouts.  Miraculously deboned, the inhalable thigh was everybody’s favorite dish.  And thanks to The Girl for generously sharing (albeit somewhat against her will).

Looking for something light, The Husband chose skate wing ($28) with calf’s liver and asparagus.  I, being the mushroom lover that I am, could not bypass Toland’s mushroom feast ($22) — a beefy and beautiful mushroompalooza of creminis, shitakes, morels and more plated with mushroom powder, mustard greens and a black walnut and mushroom “paint.”  Once again, my only complaint was that I was left wanting more of this delightful vegetarian option.

Pastry chef Sarah Jordan’s out-of-the- ordinary desserts complement Toland’s antiestablishment cuisine.  Photo courtesy of The Black Sheep

But then there were former Blackbird pastry chef Sarah Jordan’s irreverent desserts ($10 each) calling our names.  The Girl picked a smoky, buttery brioche beignet with malt semi-freddo, sour beer caramel, marshmallow and puckery pickled apples. The Husband and I shared root beer sponge cake with summery strawberry and rhubarb, St-Germain, and rhubarb foam.

Although his attention to detail is clearly classically French-inspired, Toland values progressiveness.  And that comes through up and down The Black Sheep’s menu — from starters to desserts.

“I don’t have to just do beignets and beurre blancs,” he says.  “The sky’s the limit.”

The Black Sheep
1132 West Grand Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60642

The Black Sheep on Urbanspoon

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3 Responses to The Black Sheep (Chicago): Chef-musician James Toland rocks it out at his new fine-dining venture

  1. Andrew Crawford says:

    On line menu has the chicken thigh at $18 not $24. Perhaps it was entree size but $24 is steep since Publican has a half chicken for that.

    • Harlene says:

      Hi Andy, I have the physical menu from the night I dined there and the chicken thigh entree was indeed $24. I do not know when the online menu was posted, so there obviously was a either a price increase or decrease at some point. I’m going to defend chef Toland on this one, because he uses a special process to create a boneless thigh. It is all meat and you are not paying for bone.

  2. B Braun says:

    THIMC The BS was a swindle from the very beginning. JT burned through $900k and paid none but barely payroll, like himself. He even screwed the guys that provided the ice machines. never paid them any thing. He rented several apartments and never paid the landlord Fox that or the $50 K note that was promised for all and somehow on the note for the restaurant. And now the vendors are coming that he never paid either. Toland forced me to sell a investment $750k restaurant for $ for less than the $200k we paid for the rotten May ST corpse in the beginning. The RF refused to transfer the lease as he never paid any of his leases he signed in the name of the LLC to force my losses to cover his failure to pay. Its in the math and when it all was paid in the sale I got nothing.. B

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