I’ve always been deeply impressed with Chicago’s culinary spirit and ingenuity whenever I visit the city. In terms of boundary-pushing fine-dining restaurants, I do believe that the Windy City is almost if not already on par with New York City. Whenever I have an opportunity to visit Chicago again, I always search for the next most exciting places where I can see and taste something I have not in NYC. When I heard of my parents’ visit to Chicago in early November, I was torn among a few critically acclaimed places for a special family dinner. My wife Jun and I have not been to the iconic Alinea or Next yet so my first inclination was to try either. Then other newcomers like Smyth and The Loyalist and Oriole also grabbed my attention. After much deliberation, I decided on Smyth and booked a tasting menu experience for four at $155 per person on Tock website, as I believed the restaurant offered a fresh take on Chicago’s New American cuisine in a fairly casual setting (compared to the rather austere vibe that Alinea gave me based on reading anecdotes about the dining experience there). While Jun and I will certainly visit Alinea and other exciting restaurants in Chicago next time we visit, I was very pleased that I chose the right restaurant this time, especially with my father who was constantly raving about the wonderful experience he had at Smyth.
The team behind Smyth (the more casual basement restaurant The Loyalist is in the same building, hence the name “Smyth and The Loyalist”), a husband and wife duo of John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, is no newcomer to Chicago’s fine dining scene, having worked at the restaurant of acclaimed Chicagoan chef the late Carlie Trotter before moving to rural Virginia. Their comeback to the Windy City is certainly one of the best things that happened to this city, with an understated yet elegant tasting menu experience that doesn’t immediately jump out at you with any Instagram-worthy plating or fancy technique but makes you smile the more you think about what you just ate, starting with a capital oyster from Washington State seasoned with dulse, turnip and preserved berries (I don’t quite recall I had an oyster this fresh in a while) and the maitake mushrooms cooked with burnt birch and wintergreen that were simply stunning in the way the smoky taste gets to your taste bud with wonderful effect. The balance of flavor and texture in the next couple of dishes, lightly steamed halibut with fermented green tea and glazed squash with quince, young pumpkin seed and wild rice, was also quite memorable, and showed that the kitchen cares deeply about how to combine different ingredients in a way that make them work in harmony in one another instead of one particular element dominating a diner’s palate.
Sometimes, the kitchen came up with a playful trick, like a bowl of chanterelle mushrooms that the server noted was inspired to replicate a pasta experience. I, for one, slightly preferred more straightforward dishes at Smyth, like the beef tongue dish that came as the last savory course. The meat was cooked more or less to perfection despite using a part of beef that is not often used for a main course, making me wonderful why restaurants do not use tongues more often. The dessert dishes at Smyth that we had were no less impressive, especially with the way the kitchen boldly combines seemingly incompatible ingredients and flavors. I had never had a milk chocolate with shiitake mushroom and kelp flavor in it, but that’s what came to us before and the complexity of flavor from this novel invention was quite wonderful. Similarly, if I had known that roasted kombu can be used to make an ice cream as good as the one I had at Smyth (adding fermented grains and black apple to give a bit more flourish to the ice cream was also a brilliant idea), I probably would’ve walked around ice cream shops in New York City asking if they have ice creams with kombu flavor. The finishing touch of egg yolk soaked in salted licorice inside a bowl of frozen yogurt meringue, to give a salty and sweet combination of flavor, was again masterful.
As noted above, Smyth only takes reservations with prepared tickets on Tock, which would therefore require some advance planning. I was very fond of the dining space of the restaurant, with a warm and unpretentious vibe that was perfect for our family dinner. Another aspect that impressed my father was service. When he accidentally broke a wine glass while pouring the remainder of wine from the bottle (by the way, the wine list at Smyth also looks to be quite well-thought out), he was attended to immediately by a server nearby looking to make sure he didn’t hurt his hand. Of course, a restaurant staff would naturally do that anywhere, but the sincere demeanor of the staff was what won my father over on this place. Smyth is an outstanding restaurant, period, and I hope this place thrives in the Windy City for a long time so Jun and I have an opportunity to visit again to experience again all the exciting cooking coming out from the kitchen.
KenScale: 8.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.75/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 9.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 9.0/10
- Texture: 9.0/10
- Value: 8.5/10
Address: 177 North Ada Street, Chicago, IL 60607
Telephone: (773) 913-3773