No chef has marked his name in Chicago the way that Grant Achatz has done with his world-renowned flagship restaurant Alinea. Along with Next and cocktail bar The Aviary, chef Achatz and his team have been at the culinary frontier pushing boundaries wherever they can with ingenious use of ingredients and techniques, as evidenced in beautiful details in Netflix’s Chef Table documentary featuring the chef. Since my girlfriend and I planned the Chicago trip on the very last minute, we were unable to secure tables at Alinea or Next (that day will definitely come next time we visit the Windy City!). Fortunately, I found out that the Alinea team recently decided to open up a more casual concept next to The Aviary by the name of Roister. Given that I haven’t been to Alinea, I couldn’t really compare my experience at Roister to the flagship restaurant but our experience at the prep kitchen downstairs sharing daily menus family-style with other diners at the counter (available at $85-95 per person including service charges (i.e. no tips), compared to $250+ at Alinea or Next) was quite pleasant.
Chef Achatz has been known for his molecular gastronomy-style flair with unexpected surprises everywhere and the dining experience at Alinea is often compared to “tasting” a magic show. I certainly didn’t see that at Roister, but the vibrant creative energy was evident throughout the meal. Green tomato gazpacho where you can add pickled green tomato salsa, charred avocado and Greek yogurt was a wonderful start to the meal, giving that refreshing sensation perfect for a summer meal. The combination of cabbage with turnips and dill that came later was also light and delicious. The kitchen really stands out in the way it combines seemingly incompatible ingredients that somehow work together quite nicely. I wouldn’t mix up cantaloupe with trout roe, ricotta cheese and cassava root but they created interesting layers of flavor that, while not perfect, offered something unique to the table. Maple and tamarind poached salmon, when combined with French vinegar curry chips, generated complex texture that I frankly don’t think I have experienced before.
Not all dishes were executed well. I felt the apple and seaweed smoked garlic parmesan oyster was unnecessarily strong in seasoning, as were the prawns with crab etoufee. Everyone who has visited Roister is talking about the fried chicken, and the kitchen prepared the one brined in chamomile sweet tea and accompanied by sunchoke hot sauce and sawmill chicken gravy. The verdict: while there was too much “fried” part (my girlfriend and I had to remove more than half of the shells), there was no question that the chicken otherwise had very good texture, with incredibly tender meat that I immensely enjoyed with the sunchoke hot sauce to add spicy kick to it. Between the two desserts that came in, I really liked the watermelon sorbet with pickled watermelon and watermelon gummy. I’m not even a fan of watermelon (as a child, I’ve always avoided fruits with seeds such as watermelons), but the delightful flavor of sorbet combined with the interesting textural mix of pickles and gummy worked together beautifully for one of the best dessert dishes I’ve had this year. Compared to this dish, the combination of chocolate bar of caramel, pretzels, marshmallow and foie gras was a little bit too sweet to my taste.
As with all Alinea team’s restaurants, Roister takes reservations via the Tock ticketing system, but unlike its more expensive counterparts (you really need to plan ahead for at least a month or so for Alinea and Next), I didn’t have a problem securing the prep kitchen table around two weeks in advance. Unlike the chaotic upstairs dining space, the prep kitchen atmosphere is more measured and civil the way I preferred. There is full bar serving both cocktails and wines; my recommendation would be to have a glass or two of wine at Roister and then head to The Aviary afterwards to truly explore the ingenuity of their cocktail preparations (although, if you’re visiting The Aviary over the weekends, you might want to book a table in advance if you want to be seated as the only other available space at the bar is the standing table in front of the cocktail “laboratory” where you get to see the mixologists in action). At some point in my lifetime, I will definitely visit Alinea and Next. For now, I would say Roister is a very good restaurant on its own delivering unique dining experience that you are not likely to see much at other places.
- Creativity: 9.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
Address: 591 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, IL 60607