CHICAGO, Ill. -- "Oh, a secret!" exclaimed my cab driver, as we pulled up to a nondescript building in the South Loop.
"What's that, a bar?" asked the cabbie who picked me up several hours later, wondering what I'd been doing in there.
True enough, Acadia, just south of 16th Street on Wabash Avenue, doesn't present much to the outside world. From the street, it's a drab little building on a very quiet stretch (at 10 p.m. that night, the sidewalk was populated by me, the car valet and a guy walking his dog). But once you walk through the front door, it's like Dorothy stepping out of her farmhouse.
The dining room is drop-dead gorgeous, a warmly minimalist, softly lit and serenely quiet space with alabaster walls, neutral carpeting and beaded-metal curtains. Seating, replaced a year ago, is plush and comfortable. And the kitchen is absolutely killing it right now, producing a parade of eye-candy dishes that display intelligence, humor and, occasionally, clever riffs on the food of chef/owner Ryan McCaskey's beloved New England region.
Had McCaskey opened Acadia on Randolph Street four years ago, he'd probably be driving a Lexus by now.
"I think about it every week," McCaskey said, in a mixture of ruefulness and defiance. "Whenever I talk to Nick Kokonas (Alinea, Aviary, Next, Roister), he tells me, 'You know, you'd have doubled your revenue in the West Loop.' But the South Loop will have its day; I know it's going to happen."
Right now, bereft of foot traffic and curb appeal, Acadia doesn't do the booming business enjoyed by other restaurants, many of which couldn't carry McCaskey's service tray. But that can be advantageous to customers. You can reserve a table without playing "fastest finger" on a website or scouring OpenTable options and asking your spouse, "Honey, how's mid-July for us?"
And McCaskey's skill and dedication make Acadia a worthy destination no matter the ZIP code.
Diners choose between a five-course tasting menu ($115; wine pairings $85) and a 10-course menu ($175; wine pairings $125). Those numbers are misleading. Each menu includes at least three canapes, such as eggshell filled with custard and pancetta, or pig-heart tartare on a chicharron crisp. There will a bread service or two, featuring pastry chef Mari Katsumura's small-scale pretzel roll, lavosh and a buttermilk biscuit that resembles a tiny, flaky bell tower, accompanied by several butters. There's generally a surprise course, perhaps the fingertip-size lobster roll that's a McCaskey signature, and a pre-dessert before the main one.
The current 10-course menu opens with an elegant composition of osetra caviar, avocado puree and barley-ale ice cream. The dab of cool and creamy avocado plays nicely off the briny richness of the caviar, while the ice cream adds a temperature jolt along with an intriguing nuttiness.
Contrasting temperatures, of which McCaskey is clearly fond, show up again in a salad of sorts. A base of cool, white-asparagus cremeaux (with a hint of white chocolate) anchors a miniature garden of baby vegetables (crunchy raw cauliflower, warm broccoli, sorrel, dill and more) that are then surrounded by a hot, charred-onion broth. The complexity of the unctuous broth and the clean flavors of the garden vegetables make for a delightful plate.
McCaskey slips in a Maine homage with a stack of cod cheeks, littleneck clams and kohlrabi, coating them with a "chowder" sauce that's more like a glaze; the finished dish looks like a dill-topped mushroom, appropriately centered on a soil-brown plate surrounded by green reindeer lichen. He has fun with the asparagus salad concept, placing Iberico ham mousseline, ham breadcrumbs (dehydrated and ground with panko) and lemon balm around a single asparagus stalk. What looks like a bird's nest is made of threads of beef brisket (yes, individual threads, and my sympathies to the employee who draws that chore), fried potato strips and grated truffle surrounding a sunny-side-up egg on a potato base.
There are fun stories behind the Rohan duck dish, a nod to Peking duck that includes pickled quail egg and dots of eel sauce; and the bacon-wrapped rabbit loin, sauced with a Napa Valley-inspired array of mustards. But I'll leave the story-telling to the waiters because their narratives are part of the experience.
Katsumura's desserts match the main courses in thoughtfulness and unexpected flavor pairings. I've had broken pieces of spice cake scattered about heirloom carrots, cream-cheese ice cream and seared foie gras. Coconut custard arrived with green-apple sorbet and jasmine gelee one visit, strawberry sorbet and elderflower a few weeks later.
Beverage director Carlos Diaz's wine pairings are strong, introducing diners to lesser-known producers and grapes. The program can only grow stronger now that Jason Prah, Acadia's original general manager and sommelier, has rejoined Acadia.
One especially nice feature is Acadia's bar menu, where you can enjoy oysters, McCaskey's take on buffalo wings and a truly excellent Acadia burger. It's McCaskey's way of making his place accessible to local residents, and it's a fine late-night option as well.