Love and ideas both sprout like flowers.
And I have enough to fill a garden of vases.
Floral infatuations aside, little did I know it would be the theme of a place tucked into a discrete patch of one of my favorite culinary cities on the planet, Chicago. I chose to try Acadia, a Michelin star recipient and tucked away from the several others I have tried in the city. While several are located in Gold Coast or the epicurious West Loop, this one was in South Loop. Almost like an Alice or a Dorothy, unsure of what lay behind the plain looking barn like building devoid of pedestrians, I withheld any expectations. Only to be greeted by the warmth of a dual spaced architecturally splendid interior, drumming up the Peter Pan in me to life.
I was greeted by a jaw-dropping gorgeous, high ceiling and minimally decorated dining room with a shimmering veiled curtain made of silver beads. The route to my heart and mind is evidently studded with metal, and I was instantly at home when perched with a view of the open kitchen through a wood paneled open doorway, led by chef and owner Ryan McCaskey of New England.
It started with a visibly ballooned sourdough bread bun with aromatic truffle butter and stone ground black pepper. So much so that you could smell the distinctness of the butter from the seat as it arrived from the open kitchen, and so delicately rich was its texture that it began to melt like a snowman on the black stone plate, evoking a cozy image of childhood dreams. The pairing was immaculate, with a hint of peppery spice as a fun surprise.
And then arrived the art on a plate, with a dish aptly titled mini cucumbers. Like runway ready plates, it foretold a story of McCaskey‘s plates honoring each component, collectively creating a refined rendition where they were all clear, visible and beautiful. And sure enough, gracefully descended on an Alice in Wonderland like garden was a mini cucumber that looked distinctly like the eggplant emoji (oh social media). It was on a bed of chopped and sliced mini cucumbers, focaccia, edible florets and fresh red and yellow tomatoes. Visibly vertical, the plate had its bread standing on their tiny toes, and, as it turned out, the mini cucumbers attached to their bright yellow origins of petals. The elegant plate tasted like the colorful orchestra it depicted, with the freshness of the vegetables complimenting the nuttiness of the bread delightfully. Like a clean salad to ready the palette for more to come.
It seemed that McCaskey was fond of contrasting textures and temperatures, much with the infamous eggplant (thanks to its emoji-fied nature, and perhaps a foresight from the previous course). The vegetable that I enjoy rarely, like once when it was cooked like steak, arrived cooked in four ways: as a fritter, poached, as a crema and deep fried. The yellow florets were still present to brighten up a dish that looked like it had gone through the tasty heat of cooking. And to my surprise, I quite liked the untarnished flavors of eggplant. The fritter was my favorite, a crispy vegetable crisp devoid of salty fattiness, followed by the tender poached rendition which I dipped into the crema, making for a juxtaposition of temperatures with the same ingredient. The deep fried was perhaps the most ordinary, but blended well when in eaten in sequence with its twinning comrades, making this a complex, filling dish.
With a double dessert tradition of sorts, pastry chef Mari Katsumura‘s dual surprise had me salivating for the duo of sweet morsels that were destined to be love at first sight, enhanced by the evident theme of floral plating.
It commenced with an inventively plated palette cleanser of sorts: honeydew melons and cantaloupe fritters with a carrot orange sorbet, thyme panna cotta and Campari pearls. There were so many intriguing components to this piece of art that I didn’t quite know where to commence. The thyme panna cotta had a radiant aroma and deep flavor, complimented with the fruity gastronomy of the honeydew melon jelly. I would have never fathomed turning cantaloupe into a fritter, but if it could be done with eggplant and vegetables, this watery fruit was not far behind! The fritters had thyme infused in them, which added a complex layer of flavor, all brought together by the curious juxtaposition of carrot and orange sorbet. Almost like a frozen treat version of a healthy juice cleanse, this was the kind where you tasted the sweetness of the carrot and citrusy orange all in one well blended lick!
The second dessert was an homage to Southern cuisine with cornbread, cornbread aioli and fennel sorbet, plated cleanly on a white plate to highlight the natural tonal variations of what seemed like Acadia’s favorite color, yellow. Thankfully not saccharine, it was a savory and bouncy soft cornbread, repurposed into its own aioli in a series of polka dots, yet another play on a food’s own identity crisis. The fennel sorbet was a deep, clean and imaginative flavor, complete with a candied radish to remind me that vegetables could be candy too. Truly a delightful and creative bite.
The two mignardises were tiny whoopie pies of dark chocolate and vanilla filling, which were discreetly strong and decadently satisfying, leaving me wondering what a takeout box of them would look like, smell like, and most importantly, how long it would last in my demonically hungry arms!
With another feather in the elegant cap of the culinary jewel of the Midwest, and I strolled into the nondescript street looking for my next soiree in the sultry city of Chicago.
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