CHICAGO, Ill. -- I'm really going to miss Honey's.
Not that I expect anything but a long, successful life for the Market District newcomer, which opened in early June.
It's not them. It's me.
One of the very few disadvantages of being a restaurant critic is the inability to be anyone's regular customer. After I visit a place a few times and write my review, it's time to move on. So many new restaurants, so little time. (Feel sorry for me yet? Didn't think so.)
Sometimes I end my review visits with regret, knowing that I probably won't return for six months, if ever. This is one of those times.
Given an empty dance card, I'd spend more time at Honey's. It has a lot of elements I love. A raw bar, offering clams and oysters by the piece (as opposed to big-bucks plateaux). Craft cocktails, conjured with the menu in mind. A comfortable, warm dining room with curvy booths, reclaimed-wood floors and shelving units that might have been lifted from a Scandinavian Design catalog, bright and airy thanks to a large skylight. Brunch service, in the planning stages, can't come fast enough.
Honey's has smart, personable service, overseen by general manager Tyrone Redic, a guy who manages to look natty in ripped jeans. And it has executive chef Charles Welch, formerly of Sepia and mk, whose confident cooking combines Midwest bounty with Mediterranean flavor in ways that are bold and balanced.
Things get off to a happy start with the arrival of bread, a plate of multigrain, pull-apart pain d'epi (toque tip to pastry chef Alison Cates, whose work I'll discuss later) and house-cultured, salt-sprinkled butter.
There are four appetizers, along with a couple of salads, and the hands-down choice for me is the spit-roasted cauliflower, shaped like an atoll around the edge of the plate. Dusted with breadcrumbs and accented with smoked giardiniera, this dish tastes of smoke and fire. Earthy flavors also come into play with the rich and gamy lamb tartare, mixed with a complex black-garlic mustard and topped with shaved artichoke and fried sunchoke,
Lighter starters include the bay scallops, arranged prettily above a puddle of white gazpacho along with grilled peach, compressed apples and sorrel. Dices of raw hamachi line up with tiny cucumber balls, grape halves, pickled onion and finger limes, alongside a pool of jalapeno-laced "verjus" that includes cucumber and lime in addition to grape juice. The sharp acidic notes and the jalapeno heat will put you in mind of an aguachile.
There are two pasta dishes, available in half and full portions (yet another friendly touch); those with light appetites, or those ordering multiple courses, will find the small serving more than sufficient. Buckwheat chitarra (guitar string) noodles arrive in a tight bundle, looking like a pasta burrito. When Honey's opened, the noodles were topped with morels; now that it's chanterelle season, the mushrooms and pasta are tossed with thyme butter and pecorino cheese. Squid-ink cavatelli, the black, ridged pasta resembling insect pupae, gets plenty of visual contrast from white calamari rings, red pickled fresno peppers, shrimp and pine nuts. Garlic doesn't add to the color, but trust me, you'll taste it, along with the heat of the peppers and a soothing mint-basil pesto.
Welch is particularly fluent in fish. Skin-on rainbow trout rests on a bed of charred eggplant along with toasted corn, a little lime, a touch of creme fraiche and bacon bits. The chermoula-marinated sturgeon is a star performer — fragrant and flavorful, served with a sort-of panzanella with vinaigrette-tossed bread cubes and an abundance of vibrant veggies (pickled and raw beets, heirloom tomatoes, purple radishes and more).
The same rotisserie that cranks out that memorable cauliflower appetizer provides a terrific roast chicken, a disjointed half-chicken laid over a ratatouille-themed melange of marinated eggplant, roasted tomatoes and castelvetrano olives. Even better is the spit-roasted pork chop with guanciale over white beans — certainly the best pork-and-beans I recall.
Cates' desserts seamlessly match Welch's dishes. Curry-infused spongecake, in broken pieces, supports Turkish-coffee mousse with cajeta caramel and Egyptian-dukkah-spiced toffee shards. Another spongecake, served intact and flavored with corn, is topped with blackberries, blackberry-swirl cardamom ice cream and chamomile custard. Thin triangles of almond tart are supported with plums, goat-cheese ice cream and crunchy nut clusters; a chocolate tahini bar with white sesame seeds is topped with buttermilk ice cream over a thick chocolate smear.
As I say, I'll miss this place. There's no reason, however, why you shouldn't become a regular.