“Does it ever stop being wonderful?” my dinner companion queried from a nirvana-like dining realm far above the table.
Not tonight, that’s for sure. Barbette’s new chef, Chris Hindricks, clearly has absorbed lots of OTJ moxie from stints in the kitchen of Beard-winner Tim McKee et al, and treats the bistro as if competing for a Michelin star. Abroad, they’re calling the trend “bistronomia”— gastronomic dining at bistro prices. And not to worry — the beloved, shabby-chic setting hasn’t changed; it’s still Ground Zero for Southwest’s crowd of boho starving artists.
Well, they won’t starve here. Mondays Chef Chris offers a four-course prix-fixe menu for $32 that changes weekly (all the more reason to put the phone number on speed dial) — a resume of his current thinking, based on meticulous, serendipitously idiosyncratic pairings that bring on the swoons.
First, a shell-on prawn, timed with a stopwatch, I’ll bet, marrying its inborn sweetness with a smart, little tang of salt. It’s poised on a crab cake, juicy with remoulade, along with fluffs of arugula for zip and dual plate paintings of smoky paprika oil and lemony aioli.
Next, a substantial scallop, again timed to the nanosecond, set upon a puddle of pureed leeks, more arugula to exercise the palate, and a sultry nip of Moroccan charmoula sauce, the Hail Mary that cinched the touchdown.
Third up, rare duck breast playing off crunchy wild rice, sweet nuggets of squash, and a gentle parsnip puree — midwinter on a plate, and perfect with a sip of Pinot Noir.
And finally, a generous square of dense, astoundingly rich cheesecake flavored with Earl Gray (whatever this guy’s smoking, I want some of it), attended with a simple, not-too-sweet, warm citrus-chocolate sauce and a curl of candied orange.
In the interest of science, we also ordered a couple of plates off the regular menu. Turns out, he knows how to cook these, too, starting with a stack of frites, thin as knitting needles, that’ll reappear in your dreams: just salty enough, just crisp enough, just ready to melt into the saffron aioli waiting in attendance.
Next, a plate of steak tartare ($12), which supplied the only disappointment of the evening. The ruddy, raw ground beef was tasty, to be sure, but mined with the sidekicks customary to this plate — capers, onion, whatever — already stirred in. Nooo! And the usual topping of egg yolk came (horrors!) lightly cooked, not supremely runny and meant to be stirred in. Loved the little bite of dijon, the perky neo-natal cornichons and husky baguette slices, however.
Finally, an entrée of roast quail ($15) where, again, the chef’s stopwatch proved faultless and the bird, sublime. Plenty meaty, too, abetted by a hearty pancetta stuffing, a spike of sweet-zippy cherry moutarde, and perhaps the world’s creamiest polenta; I’d crawl back for that alone. For dessert. Or breakfast: Barbette opens at 8 a.m.
1600 W. Lake St.