EVANSTON, Ill. -- Nostalgia is great if you get the dosage right. The Barn, the latest Evanston restaurant by Amy Morton (Found), pretty much does.
There's enough yesteryear to the place to stir rosy-hued memories, but not so much that the restaurant loses its sense of the present. And that's the balance one has to strike; overindulge in a bygone era, and you risk reminding everybody why it died out in the first place.
The old-timey touches start early. You reach the restaurant through an alley — an alley with valet parking, granted, but gritty enough to make my wife doubt my sense of direction. The grit gives way to glam as you pass through the front door and curtain to find a faded-brick space with 20-foot ceilings (enough to accommodate a loft overlooking the dining room) and a generally crowded bar. The atmosphere is warm, and so is the temperature; on one chilly evening, my wife removed her sweater, and her upper arms haven't appeared in public since August.
The Barn is, in fact, a onetime horse barn, operated in the late 1880s by the Borden Condensed Milk Company (the horses pulled the buggies that delivered the milk). The original barn door is mounted outside, adjacent to the front door; boarded-up window spaces were once the horse-stall windows. The faded Borden's Milk mural on the loft wall is actually a recent addition, but it's true to the building's history. Modern touches include a beautiful chandelier that graces the main room without blocking the loft tables' view; a large photograph of an alpaca named George adds a bit a humor. Waiters are quite gentle with customers asking, "What's with the llama?"
"I fell in love with the guy," Morton said of George. "He just brings life to a stark wall."
There are references to Morton's past, too, specifically that of her father, the legendary restaurateur Arnie Morton. The menu's three steaks nod to Morton's the Steakhouse, and classic dishes and those prepared tableside echo Arnie's, the elder Morton's fine-dining restaurant that opened on State Street in the 1970s.
Tableside preparation is tricky under the best of circumstances — maneuvering the cart, timing entrees for the whole table — and, based on my month-apart visits, the staffers haven't nailed this service down. One night, I was seated at a table so close to a service cart that passing waiters kept bumping my chair. But they are improving.
One thing that has helped is that the steaks, previously carved at the table, are now plated in the kitchen. Remembering my experience at another restaurant, watching a server gamely saw through a hunk of beef while three other entrees on my table achieved thermal equilibrium with the dining room, I think this is a good call.
You can still enjoy that presented-just-for-you feeling with the Little Gem salad, which has all the components of a classic Caesar with a couple of bonuses (pumpkin seeds and pickled Vidalia onions). General manager Stefan Bosworth, a tableside-service maven from his years at Lawry's the Prime Rib, rolls up with a cart loaded with pre-portioned ingredients (a triumph of mise en place) and assembles them with understated flair; by the time he crowns the salad with a thin white anchovy, you can't wait to dig in. You'll be happy when you do.
I'd order the salad as a separate course — it's easily shared — but I'd spend a little more time among the appetizers. Chef Nicole Pederson, who also runs the kitchen at Found, Morton's other Evanston restaurant, has put together a solid, familiar menu. It doesn't call itself comfort food, but that's pretty much what arrives on the plate. Nifty starters include a warm casserole of buttery king crab with diced beets and a beet-laced seafood stock, and a hearty tartare of venison, balanced with root-vegetable slaw and paper-thin sweet-potato chips.
The "ode to La Tour" sweetbreads represent a different sort of nostalgia. The crisped sweetbreads with brown butter, lemon and capers are not named for the bygone La Tour restaurant in Chicago (I doubt Pederson is old enough to remember that place) but the very much extant La Tour in Vail, Colo., where Pederson once worked. There's also a fine fish soup, fortified with poached halibut and topped with a dollop of herbed whipped cream that adds richness without taking the dish into bisque territory.
My favorite is the tomato onion tart, served at room temperature. Cut from one very large tart (on display near the host stand), the wide slice offers surprisingly respectable tomato flavor amid the onions and thyme; combined with a sturdy cornmeal crust, this tart reminded me just a bit of a deep-dish pizza, a nod to Chicago's culinary roots that, I'm assured, is quite unintentional.
The main course is where The Barn shows off its muscles, quite literally. Though a roasted vegetable platter is included in the mix, this is very much a meat-centric assortment, boasting a fine pan-seared pork chop with sweet-potato puree and hazelnuts, za'atar-seasoned roasted chicken (in half and whole portions) with excellent crispy skin, and Bolognese pasta featuring chitarra noodles, house ricotta cheese and chunks of ground bison.
Heritage Angus steaks are excellent, presented over a thin puddle of demiglace. Add some smashed German butterball potatoes with marrow-butter Bearnaise sauce for $2.95 ($6.95 a la carte). And there are blue-plate specials, ranging from Wednesday's chicken pot pie to Saturday's veal chop (which was a beautiful rack of lamb on my first visit, but switched after customers objected to the fat cap on the Colorado lamb; sigh).
Desserts are worth contemplating. Pederson has fun with affogato; in addition to the classic vanilla gelato and espresso combination, she'll offer other versions, notably one with lemon sorbetto and Aperol (or moscato, if you prefer something less bitter) that I absolutely loved.
There's also a very good hazelnut-chocolate mousse, strewn with candied hazelnuts, and a respectable creme brulee. The theatrical choice is the cheesecake, doused with sauteed and flamed cherries — done tableside, of course. Think of it as cherries jubilee, with soft cheesecake standing in for vanilla ice cream.
Service, the occasional bump aside, is well-versed and very professional. Beverages include budget-conscious wines and a tidy list of mostly classic cocktails, though the bar couldn't resist one final homage with its vodka-based "Mortini."
Barely over two months old, The Barn isn't yet as good as it will be, but already it's well worth a visit. The food is solid, the space is welcoming and I get a kick out of the visuals.
Say hi to George for me.