CHICAGO, Ill. -- Less than a year old, Cantina 1910 has endured enough controversy for a 10-year veteran.
The Andersonville restaurant opened in September and quickly attracted a swarm of negative attention from online citizens, who demonized the place for charging for chips and salsa (the housemade salsas more than justify the tariff) and recoiling at some of the less-familiar dishes. It must be fun to be called "inauthentic" by people ill-equipped to do so.
It got so crazy a backlash, bash-the-bashing-Yelpers emerged.
And just as that storm had been weathered (Cantina 1910 placated the critics by adding more margaritas to the drink list), opening chef Diana Davila, whose fearless cooking was being lauded by working critics, abruptly left, as did much of the kitchen team. It took three months for co-owners Mark Robertson and Mike Sullivan to find a replacement, while original pastry chef Andrew Pingul heroically held down the fort.
California chef Scott Shulman arrived in March, his resume littered with Michelin-starred restaurants; with Shulman and Pingul (who, thankfully, returned to his breads-and-dessert duties), Cantina 1910 has a boast-worthy kitchen team again.
Shulman's approach, much like Davila's before him, is to interpret Mexican cuisine with local, seasonal ingredients. This permits more than a little creativity, evidenced by Shulman's arroz con pollo, which arrives as a massive fried ball containing chicken mousse, poached egg and ancho puree, supported by a base of risotto with poblano, peas and corn ragu and topped by cilantro-jalapeno gremolata. The online Authenticity Police's collective head may explode, but it's a delicious dish.
"When we approached the dish, we thought, 'We're not going to make grandmother's version any better, so let's make it different,'" Shulman said.
Shulman's daily "chef's ceviche" might raise an eyebrow or two as well; if there's such a thing as Asian ceviche, this would qualify: rolled-up slices of escolar with shimeji mushrooms, ancho-flavored dashi and red shiso leaf. Again, unexpected, and delicious.
Shulman doesn't overlook the familiar. The menu offers more than a half-dozen tacos, served individually or in three- or four-taco flights. They're all well-made, the double tortillas small but piled high with ingredients. I particularly liked the housemade chorizo tacos, topped with apple matchsticks and queso fresco; the turkey carnitas, with radish and a delightful peach salsa; and carne asada, with roasted-tomato salsa and coins of breaded bone marrow.
Shulman has a way with scallops, presenting them in a ceviche (more like an aguachile) with halved cherry tomatoes and chayote in a morita-pepper-laced tomato water; it's a restrained preparation that gives the sweet scallops center stage. Scallops divorciados, a play on a traditional breakfast dish, arrays the shellfish, peas and masa dumplings over contrasting corn and pea-poblano sauces.
I could make a meal out of the esquites, a corn-three-ways jumble (including barely cooked kernels for a bit of crunch) with queso fresco, mayo and a torched corn pudding on top; and the rich queso fundido, which contains more of that good chorizo within the poblano-Parmesan-mornay sauce.
Large plates are mostly in the teens and mid-$20s. The big spend is the $36 dry-aged strip steak with sweet corn, spicy tomatillo and stuffed squash blossom, but the well-flavored steak may well suffice for two. Barramundi, served over a banana leaf with pureed hominy, tangy tomato-tamarind sauce and a side dish of roasted potatoes is a good choice, and you'll be happy with the day's pan-roasted fish with "mole fresca" and masa dumplings. Slow-cooked chicken is a butter-soft boneless breast supported by black-bean mole, colorful cauliflower and rutabaga puree.
Pingul's dishes are delightful, whether you arrive early for his breakfast pastries (the restaurant opens for breakfast/brunch daily), order the savory cheese-and-chili-flecked panecito buns with dinner or dive deep into the dessert list. Among the highlights are the camera-ready tostada, artfully topped with jocoque ice cream (which will remind you of creme fraiche); the flan with pecan crumble; and the hula-hoop-shaped churro with cajeta and vanilla crema dips.
The space is beautiful, a brick, steel and glass exterior that gives way to a rustic-looking interior filled with local Mexican art (the works of Victor M. Montanez are in rotation at present), reclaimed-wood tables (made by Square Nail, also in Andersonville) and handsome light fixtures (by local designer Ted Harris). Metal chairs are somewhat uncomfortable; sit on the cushioned banquette if you can.
The kitchen's fine cooking is being somewhat undermined by the front-room staff, which doesn't lack for pleasantness but occasionally can't get out of its own way. Nothing egregiously bad, understand, but there's a lack of efficient flow to service that is borne out by the time it takes drinks and even food to arrive. (When they do arrive, the cocktails, especially the smoky mezcal margarita, are quite good.)
One visit I checked in with a very cheerful hostess who walked over to the dining room and disappeared for 10 minutes. Cocktails sometimes take an awfully long time to arrive. (The owners might consider adding a bartender or two.) A waiter one night carefully plotted out the order in which my dishes would arrive, only to deliver the dishes in an utterly random fashion. (I get that the kitchen pops out some dishes faster than others, but that's where teamwork comes in.) And the glass of red wine I ordered with my main course arrived after the dish had been eaten, and was so warm it might have been resting on a windowsill. (The waiter should have offered to cancel the wine order.)
If this were just a taco-and-salsa restaurant, I wouldn't make a big deal out of these glitches. But Shulman's and Pingul's cooking, and this restaurant's potential, demand more.