Looking south over the North Pond of Lincoln Park is like being one of the Pevensies – Edmund, Lucy, Peter, and Susan – looking back into the wardrobe. Okay, so the tree-framed vignette of Chicago’s skyline is much grander than a closet full of musty coats. But the effect is the same.
Few restaurants are able to embody a sense of place and time as well as North Pond. There’s something otherworldly about this restaurant. Maybe it’s the squat linear Prairie design, or the wood and stone aesthetic (you can read about the building’s history on the restaurant’s website). Maybe it’s its location on the wooded edges of a clearing in the middle of a municipal park. Maybe it’s the chef, an agrarian hunter and gatherer whose approach seems much more elfish than human. Whatever it is, eating at North Pond is an escape from our world into another.
It’s the world of Thoreau and Chaucer (both of whom are quoted on the walls*); one imbued with the romanticism and naturalism of Klimt.
I brunched at North Pond a few years ago with two very dear friends. On that balmy summer morning, I recall a cut of chilled smoked salmon so delicate and silky you would have thought it came out of a sushiya located near a campfire. There was also a wedge of warm buttery crust lined with meaty Portabello mushrooms above a thin layer of savory cream. That tart came with rich, tangy balsamic butter sauce. And I do recall committing blasphemy on that Sunday morning with a rum-infused cake.
More recently I saw Bruce Sherman at the 2008 James Beard Awards in New York (he was nominated for Best Chef Midwest). There, he served an “Anise Hyssop and Goat Cheese Sorbet with Rhubarb Relish and Herbed (chive) Shortbread Cookies,” which not only won the award for the dish with the longest title, but was one of the two best things I tried that evening.
Having vowed at our brunch to return for dinner together, we agreed that North Pond seemed like the appropriate place for a reunion of friends, who three years ago had met at this tiny place out of place, and who, in the intervening years, had strayed to the four corners only to find themselves back in the city wherein they had many culinary adventures together.
Dinner at North Pond is not brunch. It can seem less idyllic, especially if you are seated in the main dining room (as opposed to the “Front Room,” lined with a panoramic view of the city), which has a more tavern-like feel. At night, the restaurant’s flush, bright interior fades to a warm glow radiating from the wood-paneled and mural-covered walls. If it’s busy, like the night we met, it can feel frenetic, compounded by the view of the kitchen from the main dining room.
Although the $85 five-course “Seasonal Tasting” looked fine, we decided to cover more ground and experience a wider range of Sherman’s cooking, for about the same price, by ordering á la carte.
I’m feeling less poetic and more lazy right now, and so I’ll simply list and summarize (click to see each dish or click here to see the entire set):
The warm, butter-yellow corn soup poured around a dome of goat cheese panna cotta studded with large English peas at the table was frothy – almost fluffy ($13). Rife with summer sweetness, we were shocked to learn that it was completely creamless, relying solely on the freshness of the pureed kernels for the velvety rich texture. The panna cotta was more dense than light and a sobering tart anchor amidst the otherwise wanton storm of sweetness.
“Egg, Bacon” initiated what would be a running discussion about the issue of season-appropriateness ($12). Surely all of the elements of this dish – eggs, bacon, (Borlotti) beans, cress and red peppers – were in season, this being the apex of summer. But, to put them together in a hearty ragout topped with that now-ubiquitous cornmeal-crusted egg (what I’ve come to call the “molten egg ball”) seemed a bit heavy-handed for the hot weather. On its merit, it was great – the yolk oozed out on cue, the beans were meaty without being gritty or mushy, and the (cover your eyes) unctuous bacon-infused stew was hearty and robust. Come around to winter, take out the cress and the (pickled) red peppers, this dish still would have been acceptably seasonal yet much more appreciated.
On the other end of the yardstick was my Beets, Goat Cheese, which was a light and delightful summer line up of the usual suspects: chiogga, red, golden, and white baby beets accompanied by a small wheel of minted goat cheese wrapped in a grape leaf topped with a bevy of pine nuts. Other than to say that the combination of mint and pine nuts was a wonderful revelation and that the beets were perfectly cooked and sweet, there’s not much to report that you haven’t already (or can’t) imagined about this dish.
There was something strange about all of these “Salads.” “Lettuce, Radish” ($12) was, perhaps the oddest: the wedge of butter leaf lettuce and baby red oak leaf lettuce dressed with tart shallot vinaigrette, coated with confetti of shredded radish and chopped Marcona almonds was upstaged (distracted?) by a gigantic basil-buttercream macaron. I mean, don’t let me object to a basil macaron filled (this sucker was stuffed) with buttercream, but I’m not sure I need that sweet, crumbly, and creamy confection appearing on my tart, crisp salad. I can’t say it was a bad combination, but it certainly was an odd one.
Then there was the walleye that swam (from the nearby Great Lakes) into a Caesar salad ($12), with some crispy prosciutto shavings in tow. This really could have been a small main course. The filet had a smoky charred top, which I think was its best contribution to the otherwise pretty straightforward salad.
There was nothing strange about the plate of charcuterie ($14), except that it wasn’t really a salad – in any sense of the word. Coppa, lonza, and lardo – all from La Quercia (Acorn Edition) – and house-made finocchiona and rabbit mousse, lined up, accompanied by shallot-raisin compote, croutons, and cress. Lardo would have been better if it had been served on hot toast – to allow it to melt slightly. Otherwise, the house-made rabbit mousse was my favorite of the lot.
There’s always a pork dish at North Pond. This one featured a triptych: (1) ancho-braised shoulder on a chive shortbread (which appeared as a base with minestra nera) and slices of apricot; (2) roasted pork chop; and (3) boneless rib glazed with slightly sweet (I’m assuming apricot) sauce ($33). Every one of the three preparations was properly cooked and had its own personality. Was there too much activity on this plate like a good friend of mine noted from a recent meal at North Pond? Yes. Did it detract from the overall experience? Yes and no. It was hard to maintain focus, but even now, my mind rotates from one to the other, not willing or able to land on a favorite (I suspect it would be the glazed rib meat if I had to decide).
But this raises a good point. My friend’s observation was apt. Bruce Sherman is not a tidy presenter. If plating were an art, he waffles between folk and abstract expressionism.
Take, for example, the Lamb, Cucumber” ($35), which featured (1) a juicy T-bone bedded on fluffy white “Wehani” rice; (2) yogurt-marinated lamb leg – pink and incredibly moist and tender for leg meat; and (3) nuggets of breaded sweetbreads (I’m not going to assume they were lamb sweetbreads, but it would make sense) scattered across a Jackson Pollack backdrop of spiced jus, chopped pistachios, and salad of diced cucumbers, tomatoes and garbanzo beans. It wasn’t the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but musky and robust, the entire mess had a hearty Mediterranean appeal if looked at from afar.
Likewise, a side order of string beans (a tad high at $9) looked like an abstraction in a mini cast iron skillet. The tangle of wax, green, and purple string beans were sauteed with fat cubes of pork belly and garlic (until they went crispy) and topped with slivered almonds.
I’m not sure whether or where the polenta appeared on the “Wild Salmon, Squash” ($34) that my friend ordered. The large filet of gently-cooked salmon (I wouldn’t be surprised if it had undergone sous vides) covered a good portion of the underlying mosaic of squashes in a blushing olive oil-tomato broth. The salmon, as I suggested, was extremely soft and silky. Together, the vegetables and broth were delicate yet flavorful, which to me, perhaps of everything we ate, tasted most of a farmer’s bounty.
An ambitious start, our meal ended modestly for my friends. I, on other hand, wouldn’t leave the table without cheese and dessert.
My friends split the “Apricot, Sweet Corn” ($9), which found a quenelle of sweet corn ice cream perched atop a balance beam made of crêpes layered with apricot (jam, I assume). While the “crêpe Napoleon” was fine – a bit dense and wet for me – the sweet corn ice cream was better, and the halved and burnished vanilla-roasted apricot sauced with a “kernel emulsion” the best. In concert – especially with some crunchy popcorn thrown on the plate – it successfully showcased two of summer’s sweetest products together.
The biggest thrill on the “Cheese, Fruit” plate ($12), which featured three cheeses, was the slice of Capriole Mont St. Francis melted on a board of toast. I like strong cheeses and the applied heat helped amplify the funkiness in this wonderful goat milk cheese. It was nice to see something thoughtful done to a piece of cheese other than serving it plain (see here also), or making some silly composition out of/with it, like so many chefs are wont to do.
Given that the Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar (the only one of the three that I was unfamiliar with) is uncolored, I found the very yellow interior very strange. The rind was even stranger – it tasted of wet rag, every bit the musty bandage that the wheel was wrapped in. The interior was alright – rather dull – but I did not find the rind fit for eating (and I particularly enjoy the rind normally).
The “Sorbet, Pie” was nothing like I had imagined. Instead of a wedge of something molded and frozen, I was delightfully surprised by a colorful trio of quenelles – blueberry-lavender, sour cream, and anise-hyssop sorbets – lined up on a strip of pie dough and dusted with brown sugar streusel crumbs. It reminded me of what Sherman served at the James Beard Awards: anise hyssop and goat cheese sorbet with rhubarb relish and herb (chive) shortbread (the same chive shortbread that came with the ancho-braised pork shoulder).
Tart, sweet, tangy, fruity, and fragrant, together, the effect was very much like eating sorbet pie.
I don’t consider North Pond a fine dining restaurant (for a more polished, like-minded experience in Chicago, consider Vie in Western Springs). That’s not a complaint or an insult. The refinement is in the philosophy, craft, and dedication.
Service is more friendly and casual than choreographed or sophisticated. At times service lagged – after a good twenty-minute wait, we were finally notified that our main courses would take another ten minutes due to a “crunch” in the kitchen. But, overall, our server was efficient, knowledgeable about the menu and wine, and, impressively, upon hearing us discussing the quotes on the wall, whipped out a sheet with all of the quotes accompanied by short bios of their authors.
North Pond is a slight step back in time, offering a more tinted than dented glimpse of a simpler time and place. Like captivating pangs of nostalgia, the edges may be fuzzy, the details unimportant, but overall impression sweet and deep.
It would probably be months before we three friends would be reunited again, and so we settled into a snifter of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey ($18), and rode out the evening on its a heady cigar smoke and thirty-mile trail of butter.
Executive Chef Bruce Sherman
2610 North Cannon Drive
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Chaucer: “The life so short, the craft so long to learn.” (In the Front Dining Room)
Matthew Arnold: “Calm soul of all things! make it mine, to feel amid the city’s jar, that there abides a peace of thine. Man did not make and will not mar.” (Above the open pass to the kitchen in the main dining room.)
H. D. Thoreau: “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” (Above the bar.)