CHICAGO, Ill. -- You couldn't ask for a better homecoming than the one that John B. Shields and his wife, Karen Urie Shields, have created on Ada Street.
John was sous-chef for Charlie Trotter for two years, then was sous-chef for Grant Achatz for the first two years of Alinea. Karen was pastry sous-chef under Gale Gand at Tru for two years before jumping to Trotter's for five, the last two as head pastry chef. When the Shieldses left Chicago in 2008, their collective resume was already impressive, even if name recognition was scant.
Handed the opportunity to open Charlie Trotter's new restaurant in Las Vegas, the couple went in the opposite direction, heading to rural Chilhowie, Va., to open their own restaurant. Trotter's restaurant in Vegas proved to be short-lived. Town House, the Shieldses' restaurant, proved to be a launching pad.
Now the Shieldses — at this point very much known in the restaurant community, thank you very much — are back in Chicago with a triumphant restaurant that justifies every nice thing that's ever been said about them.
At Smyth (pronounced "smith," in case you were wondering), the Shieldses have achieved that very tricky balance between culinary excellence and unaffected informality. There's a genuine feel to the warm greeting at the door and the easy confidence of the servers. The high-ceilinged loft space that serves as dining room and kitchen is all natural wood and luxurious spacing. The display kitchen is like a stage, and diners can marvel at the performers, going about their duties with seemingly no wasted effort.
Dinner is a set menu, eight courses for $135 (optional wine pairing $85), a relatively low price made all the remarkable by the Shieldses' idea of what an "eight course" dinner entails; there are always a few extras here and there. Smyth just introduced a 12-course tasting for $195 (wine pairing $125), and I suspect that will be a significant value as well.
The parade of dishes in the course of the evening reflects the seasons (the Shieldses have an exclusive arrangement with a downstate farm that supplies most of their produce) and inspirations that probably go back to childhood. What unites them is the Shieldses' knack for dishes that look simple and unintimidating but are masterpieces of complexity.
Dinner will start with a crispy/salty bite, perhaps sunchoke and sea beans in a chicken-skin boat, atop an artfully crumpled piece of paper. What looks like a few sips of miso broth instead tastes of the sea — a mussels extraction containing a solitary leaf of sea lettuce.
Later there will be a dish I like to call "beet jerky," ribbons of smoked beet with a texture somewhere between beef jerky and gummy worm, dusted with powdered scallop and placed on a greenish oyster emulsion. Later still, there will be fish — shima aji my first appearance, kanpachi the second — coddled in a buttery yuzu sauce with Carolina rice (first visit) or malted rice koji (second).
Highlights among the highlights include crabmeat alongside saltwater-poached foie gras, over scrambled kani miso (crab brains and other inner bits) with shards of melt-in-mouth kelp flakes; a texturally joyful salad of crispy duck tongue, black walnuts and oxalis leaves; squab with buttered peas (lovingly preserved from spring) and halved Champagne grapes; and lamb loin with two versions of marmite (a yeasty spread), their fermented flavors highlighting the lamb's innate sweetness.
Somewhere in the middle of those dishes will come a savory doughnut of brioche dough fried in beef fat. The mad-hot, blistered exterior contrasts with the soft, yielding interior. Call it a beef-marrow beignet, or "bone-gnet," and I really wish I could say I came up with that term, but I cannot (authorship may belong to Graham Elliot, who reportedly invented the name mid-dinner).
The last few courses are devoted to the sweet side of things, and again, it's one amazing treat after another. I'll point out two, both extraordinary in different ways. First is an egg yolk, which has been cured in a licorice-vanilla syrup, later reintroduced to whites, which have been made into a sort of yogurt-sorbetto-meringue. The chewiness of the mostly firm yolk and the meringue's creaminess are accented by a crumble of fried fermented farro with a bit of black-raspberry compote. The overall taste is definitely sweet, but subtly so.
Second is the pate de fruits, but instead of chewy fruits, the sweet nuggets (tucked into a ceramic orb) are made from vegetables, cooked down and imbued with spices and red wine. It's delicious, and a gentle way of distancing Smyth from the expected.
And that, apart from the Shieldses' monster talent, is what makes Smyth so enjoyable. More than a few restaurants have snubbed fine-dining convention by way of establishing their own identities; the Shieldses' approach feels much more like an evolution than a reprimand.