FOREST PARK, Ill. -- You might not think of Forest Park's stretch of Madison Street as a restaurant row, but there are so many dining options here — pub food, family Italian, Cajun, Francesca's Fiore (the near-west-suburban link in Scott Harris' chain) — that even midweek you might have to hunt a little for a parking spot.
But Oak Park couple Mischa and Jacob DeHart thought the neighborhood needed more, so they found a property to develop and recruited two chefs — Sieger Bayer and Michael Spiewak — to run the place. The chefs had been line cooks together at Old Town Social and were part of the team at Nellcote; Sieger went on to cook at Leghorn, The Bristol, Balena and Formento's; Spiewak put in time at Lula Cafe.
The Heritage, which seats 54 if you count the eight-seat bar, opened Sept. 1. The elements are a bit of a mishmash — weathered brick on some walls, glazed white and black tiles farther back, dark painted tin ceilings and a gleaming white-quartz bar top — but it pulls together nicely. Seating is at tufted banquettes or brass chairs; the chairs swivel, which takes getting used to, but they're comfortable.
Though the menu is compact — just seven appetizers and six entrees to choose among — its flavors and influences are widespread, with many from the Mediterranean. "At Leghorn, we were pigeonholed as a fried chicken place; at Formento's, red sauce," Bayer said. "So (here) we try to keep it broadly focused."
The menu headings are modest to a fault. "Marinated olive salad" promises little more than a relish tray, but what arrives is a careful composition of Spanish and Italian olives, kissed with a bit of walnut oil and brightened with pomegranate. Chicken-liver mousse is typically a spread-your-own starter, but here it arrives smeared thickly on grilled sourdough, topped with sweet onion, radish and pepper jelly. Oysters are lightly butter-poached and finished under a broiler, served on the half shell under a "gremolata" of almonds and pickled mustard seeds.
The kitchen is strong with comfort food. Soups are very good, whether it's the squash, on which float crushed cocoa nibs and espelette pepper; or the calcot (green onion) and potato, a piping-hot play on vichyssoise topped with a drizzle of celery oil. Pork belly, crispy from a hard sear, gets an Eastern European accent from braised red cabbage, thin-sliced pear and a caraway vinaigrette.
Bread is complimentary, but you have to ask for it. The sourdough bread comes from Pleasant House Bakery, and the butter is flecked with Maldon salt. Ask for it.
Entrees range from $15 to $26, which shouldn't blow many budgets. At the low end: roasted sweet potatoes with polenta, farro and garlic chips; it suffices as a vegetarian option or a side dish for four. At the high end is wild fish, often fluke but occasionally something else, sauteed with butter and caper leaves (a slight variation on the brown-butter-and-caper treatment) and plated with marble potatoes and pistachio salsa verde. Parisian gnocchi for $17 is a nice option, but bolstered with braised duck and pickled cherry, it's a real bargain.
Keep an eye out for specials such as pork shoulder, which might be served with roasted carrots and pureed parsnips, or over molasses-braised beans and pickled cipollini onions. A special of tagliatelle pasta in chestnut-truffle sauce and shaved Perigord truffle was delicious; I'll be rooting for its return.
The Heritage's five desserts are all worth a look. There's a buttery, crumbly French butter cake with quince and vanilla ice cream ("It's really a gateau Breton," Spiewak said, "but when we changed it to 'French butter cake,' our sales tripled."), and craggy doughnuts with enough crannies to make good use of the bourbon anglaise on the plate. Pavlova (meringue cake) with poached pears is light on the tongue, and the panna cotta, served in a coffee cup under a thin layer of chocolate topped with coconut and almonds, is like a spoon-friendly candy bar. When the house-made ice cream lineup includes the roast-apple sorbet, grab it.
The bar manager is Nick Kokonas, Longman & Eagle alum and a man saddled with a "not that one" surname as long as he remains in the Chicago area (The Heritage uses Tock, the reservation system by the "other" Nick Kokonas, adding to the potential confusion). Kokonas offers a tidy list of five or six cocktails, of which the most interesting is the Something and Tonic, which changes week to week. I don't know if Kokonas can sustain this for a year, but I've managed to have three versions of this drink, and so far, so good.