Back to Basics in Chicago

06.30.09
There’s a fresh new breeze blowing through restaurants in the Windy City—and it’s leaving very little in its wake.
back to basics in chicago

In the rush to embrace molecular gastronomy, no American chefs have cheered louder—or with more enthusiasm—than those in Chicago. We’ve got more xanthan gum and more liquid nitrogen in this town than anyplace outside of Spain.

But lately I’ve detected a shift in our overwhelmingly molecular-friendly city. I first noticed it at The Publican, where you’d be hard pressed to order anything that has more than five ingredients. At Taxim, a dish can take the simple form of a braid of phyllo and a chunk of feta. My unsauced, wood-grilled trout at Nightwood shared the plate with a little pile of lentils. And their cheeseburger is, well, a cheeseburger—no fried egg on top, no pâté stuffed in the middle.

Not only is this food not molecular or hyper-manipulated—it’s hypo-manipulated. Totally minimalist. (Luckily these plates are all well executed; with minimalist food it’s harder to make a splash—and much harder to cover up any mistakes.)

So why are chefs putting so much effort into food that by design creates so little fanfare? Could this be part of a growing backlash against molecular gastronomy, which even Grant Achatz, declared dead in his recent book proposal? Maybe this is an economic issue—accessible food for people who need a break in an ever-complicated world? Or perhaps it’s simply because it’s cheaper for restaurants to offer these stripped-down choices?

Or, just maybe, all of those ideas are wrong. This realization came to me on my last visit to Nightwood. I was poking at my plate of pasta, hunting around for something more, searching for secret ingredients underneath the ravioli. And when I didn’t find any, something occurred that hadn’t happened to me in a very long time: I stopped thinking. I exhaled. I started eating. And in the wake of years of high-concept food, it felt like a groundbreaking way to dine.

Photograph by Tamara Bell