CHICAGO, Ill. --
If you can think of a pithy phrase that describes Roister, the month-old concept launched by the Alinea folks (Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas), I wish you'd pass it along. I got nothing.
The name suggests noisy revelry, and that's certainly appropriate. The long dining room places tables on either side of the open kitchen, which makes it noisy to begin with. But the music, an anything-goes playlist that was crowd-sourced from fan suggestions months before Roister's debut, is played through a system turned up to 11, and that, accompanied by the raised voices of customers trying to be heard, makes this a roisterous place indeed.
Chef Andrew Brochu, who prior to this gig was running the kitchen at Aviary (you might have caught him at Graham Elliot, Kith & Kin and EL Ideas in previous years), oversees a bill of fare that could have come from a random-menu-item program. There are comfort-food items, riffs on hangover recipes, nods to Brazil, Korea and the Deep South.
Most of the cooking is done over an open hearth; most dishes are fire-kissed one way or the other. Not a Rotovap or Anti-Griddle in sight.
And while just about everything Brochu sends out is delicious, plate artistry is not high among his priorities. For every prettily presented dish like the scallop crudo, embellished judiciously with pickled mustard seed and charred daikon, there's a holy mess of a homespun, Sunday-gravy lasagna with burrata, or a "dark and stormy" glazed pork butt (a dark and stormy is a dark rum and ginger beer cocktail) that looks like it was dropped from a great height.
Messy. Noisy. Primal. Call it the anti-Alinea.
The 6-foot-tall, brick-lined hearth forms Roister's epicenter. If you dine a la carte, you'll be at a table to the front or the rear of the open kitchen. If you go for the $85 tasting menu, you'll sit at a counter directly facing the hearth, close enough to the cooking action to disrupt a chef's attention.
It's kind of fun sitting at the counter, having chefs hand you dishes and basically small-plating it for a couple of hours. But, for my money (well, the Tribune's money, but play along), a la carte is the way to go.
Most of the dishes play better as shared plates. The whole chicken, for instance, arrives as fried thighs, roasted breast and confit leg (made into a chicken salad). The tasting-menu version gives you a little of each, but to see the entire chicken in front of you, in its compartmentalized bowl, is to understand the concept of the dish, the faint Peking duck echoes, the communal experience the chef intended.
I've done the tasting menu, dined a la carte with one guest and dined with four friends. My preference would be a table of four, minimum.
And my table would start with the cheese rillettes. Rillettes is a rustic pate, a meaty paste, but Brochu works a cheesy version, pulverizing cheddar, Parmesan and mascarpone and topping the resulting spreadable with truffle-tossed cauliflower. A couple of pieces of fry bread, that southwest Native-American staple, make a fine conveyance.
I'd also grab the sourdough pancake, its slightly ferment-y flavor serving as a base for marinated mussels, creamy mustard custard, peas and pea shoots. These ingredients take to each other like old friends. Chunks of fried Yukon gold potatoes are topped with bonito flakes, giving them a delicate brininess that salt would not, and tofu mayo proves to be a nice dipping companion.
Aged cabbage — somewhere between pickled and a full-on kimchi — matches surprisingly well to pieces of roasted pineapple. The romaine salad is a sort of stealth charcuterie plate, fleshed out with sliced guanciale, salami and nduja spread. Poached salmon is topped with a handful of potato chips in a bit of ironic trashiness, but be warned that the salmon arrives sufficiently underdone to qualify as sashimi.
What the menu calls beef broth is actually Brochu's version of ya-ka-mein, a rustic dish peculiar to New Orleans (where it's sometimes called "Old Sober" for its putative hangover-abatement properties). Brochu uses beef cheek and tongue, a soft-boiled egg (it would be hard-boiled down South), housemade bucatini and espelette seasoning, all swimming in a beef broth enriched with wagyu drippings. It may not cure your hangover, but you'll be less sad that you have one.
The drippings come from the menu's biggest indulgence, the 7-ounce, $110, A-5 Japanese wagyu steak. It's an indulgence in every sense of the word; not only is it pricey (though shareable; a little A-5 goes a long way), but the steak is smothered in togarashi-dusted sea-urchin butter. It's so insanely rich, one of my dining companions wondered aloud if the restaurant had a defibrillator standing by.
Pipe-shaped pasta with razor and littleneck clams swim in a clam-reduction broth fortified with creme fraiche, topped with a "green chili ragout" of roasted poblanos and shishitos and clumps of vivid-green wasabi tobiko caviar. "It's like, 'ugh, cheap-sushi caviar,' not something you'd find in an upscale restaurant," Brochu said. "But it's what makes the dish pop."
There are only three desserts. One is a honey cake, to which the diner adds granola, buffalo yogurt and/or rhubarb to taste. Another is an ode-to-things-gummy mashup of milk ice cream and fruity gummy bits, and I didn't understand this one at all. My favorite is the foie gras, topped with black walnuts and pretzel bits and enrobed in chocolate — the most luxurious chocolate bar you've likely ever seen.
Every night, there are two or three off-menu items that the kitchen sends out as gifts. The giftees are chosen at random, but somehow they all found their way to my table (so much for anonymity). Creamed morels with peanut leaves, duck breast, seared foie gras with green morels — if any of these appear, thank your lucky stars. And the kitchen, of course.
For all that goes into the dishes and the army of cooks producing them, Roister is almost astonishing in its affordability. Small plates start at $9 and scale no higher than $19. Entrees are in the mid-$20s for the most part, and pricier big-ticket items such as the whole chicken and leg of lamb will serve three easily. Even considering Roister's 20 percent service charge, added automatically to the check, the only thing louder than the overhead music might be the sigh of relief from your wallet.