Dinner – Friday, October 5, 2018

With only one night in Chicago, I struggled to choose a restaurant to visit – so many good options! Noah Sandoval’s Oriole and Iliana Regan’s Elizabeth were strong contenders, but I ultimately decided to revisit Smyth. We had a very good meal there shortly after it opened in 2016, and getting a taste of the Shields’ cooking back in April whet my appetite for more.

I got there early to sip a few cocktails downstairs at The Loyalist, and to taste their vaunted burger – it was very delicious, but some ensuing banter would come back to haunt me later (for the impatient, look below between the squab and dessert courses). Pre-dinner complete, I headed upstairs to begin the main event – the Omaha menu.

Sea lettuce pastry, oyster emulsion, oyster plant

Capital oysters and dulse
Currant leaf oil, pickled daikon, wasabi, herbs from the farm

These small oysters from Washington state sat in a pool of vinaigrette consisting of currant leaf oil, apple juice, pickled spruce tips and celery top oil – somehow perfectly balanced. Lots of acidity and a note of heat from the wasabi – delicious.

Shima aji, gelee of its bones
Pickled conifers, nasturtium, chanterelle aioli

The fish was cured in nuka overnight – if you’ve worked with the stuff, you’ll know that’s plenty. Again, the dish had a nice tangy note that I believe came from rice vinegar. Underneath the firm slices of shima aji was a creamy salad of its shredded meat, mixed with chanterelle aioli – this nicely balanced the power of the other components.

Pickled shima aji
Smoked apple, kelp, burnt shallot, birch

Shima aji ribs barbecued over spruce
Kaluga caviar, yuzu kosho, sorrel

The finale of the shima aji triptych. Here, its ribs were grilled and brushed with housemade yuzu kosho, then topped with sorrel and caviar. I ate it with my hands, as was intended. Sweet, sticky, salty, spicy – fantastic.

Matsutake grilled over birch wood and wintergreen

Lightly steamed halibut, battera konbu
Spinach, broth of fermented green tea and white asparagus

The genius of John Shields is his ability to harmonize a seemingly crazy number of ingredients and techniques, and make it seem effortless. This halibut had been cured (in something I don’t recall), then lacquered in a mussel and brown butter reduction, before being misted with a shrimp garum – ridiculous! One can easily enjoy the fish without realizing the effort behind it, but knowing the details makes it that much better.

Butternut squash, blue cheese oil
Wild rice, black walnuts, pumpkin seeds

Dungeness crab
Foie gras, scrambled kani miso, dashi chips

Surprise! This is actually a photo from our visit two years ago! I was distracted by a fellow eater who stopped by my table to chat, and forgot to take a picture. The plating has changed slightly, but the constituents of this “signature” remain the same – still a brilliant dish and worthy of remaining on the menu.

Chanterelles, housemade yuba, egg yolk cured in chanterelle oil

Smoked beef tongue
Sprouted wheat emulsion, shiso buds, salted plum

The beef tongue was braised in milk and hay before smoking and slicing – it was packed with flavour. The little chunks of salted plum in chive oil vinaigrette somehow reminded me very much of XO sauce – really, really good.

Lacquered squab
Black garlic miso, Fall leaves, pear, chicken and foie gras jus

Squab was presented lacquered with pineapple sage and pear, then whisked away to be carved. It returned in segments with some supporting characters – (1) breast, front and center, under a canopy of Fall leaves drizzled with jus; (2) crispy leg and head (with brain) in the rear; (3) black garlic miso with hickory nut; (4) a slice of Bosc pear flavoured with duck garum and kefir lime. The leg, in particular, was out-of-this-world. A very impressive final savory course.

“The Loyalist Special Burger”
100% beef patty, bone marrow, potato bun

Just as I was shifting into dessert mode, I was ambushed by a surprise drop from The Loyalist – their all-beef Special Burger and fries. This felt richer than the regular burger (which mixes bacon into the grind) I had enjoyed just a few hours prior – no mean feat. Because it was so tasty, I actually managed to work through about three-quarters of it. I’ll also take a moment to pay respect to these fries – I’m a lover of skinny, crispy potatoes and usually detest thick-cut fries, but these were damn good.

Milk chocolate, raspberry preserves, kombu, shitake

Yogurt parfait
Marquis grapes, juniper, fig leaves, citrus and honey from the farm

The chocolate bar above was a little much after everything I had eaten, so this dessert was very welcome. The tangy parfait was so light and refreshing, with only some hints of sweetness coming from the fruits and honey. Excellent.

Roasted kombu ice cream, black apple, malted grains
Terrific! One of the best desserts I’ve had this year – Karen Shields is an amazing pastry chef. There was just enough kombu in the ice cream to make it obvious, but not such that it crossed into the realm of the truly weird. The other components were also pretty out-of-this-world – I believe one of the servers referred to the malted grains as “vegan ants”. Somehow, everything came together in the most magical way – a 3* dessert.

Sweet corn tartlet with gooseberries and quince curd
Seaweed caramel tart, carrots cured in black licorice

Some restaurants make their name by focusing on the essence of an ingredient, aiming to amplify its unique flavour to the extreme. There is some of that at Smyth, but in my opinion, the true magic here lies in the dishes that make me go, “this is really delicious, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is”. John and Karen Shields masterfully write complex symphonies. I think that Smyth will have to be a place I revisit every time I’m in town (oh, and that burger is a must as well).

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