CHICAGO, Ill. -- Sortallini.
That dish tells you just about all you need to know about 2-month-old Giant and Jason Vincent, iconoclastic chef and partner.
It's a delicious, cheese-filled tortellini, fleshed out with guanciale, pine nuts and a light sauce with basil and tomatoes. But rather than the familiar circular shape, the pasta packets are formed from rectangles. (Vincent couldn't stand the waste from circular cuts, he said.) So, strictly speaking, it's not tortellini. But it's "sort of" tortellini, and thus the name.
We've come to expect this against-the-current ethos from Vincent. In early 2014, months removed from his 2013 award as one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs in America, he left his post at Nightwood (the restaurant closed a year later) and took a two-year pots-and-pans hiatus to be a full-time dad to his young daughters. This year, he announced his return via an April 1 press release (not coincidentally), promising to open a Logan Square restaurant with a menu of "farm-raised ramen tacos" and assuring future customers "we can't wait to take care of your money."
In July, he opened Giant, seemingly an ironic reference to its 1,400-square-foot, 44-seat space. But the name actually references "Me and My Giant," a poem Vincent reads to his daughters, which was written by the late Shel Silverstein, who grew up in Logan Square.
Joining Vincent in this endeavor are chef Ben Lustbader (who cooked with Vincent at Nightwood) and Josh Perlman (ex-Avec), who oversees Giant's wine-focused beverage program.
"I do need to be clear, this is definitely Jason and Ben's food, and I absolutely couldn't do it without him," said Vincent. "Ben is co-chef with me, and Josh isn't just the beverage director. We're running Giant as a three-headed monster."
The trio, then, has produced a menu of 16 tiny to medium plates. Ramen tacos, to the relief of all, are not among them. But there are uni shooters, single-bite fried pasta shells with liquefied sea urchin, condensed milk and gochujang; irresistble flaky biscuits, served with a smear of jalapeno butter; and garlic-buttermilk mashed potatoes inspired by Vincent's days at Fore Street, a legendary restaurant in Portland, Maine.
It's difficult to envision a concept that will embrace that varied a menu, but Vincent, who hates the very concept of a concept, is fine with that.
"The worst thing about a 'concept,'" Vincent said, "is when you come up with a good idea (for a dish) and you either have to retrofit it into the concept, or work outside the concept. And then, what's the point?"
The overall point is contained in Vincent's credo, "Don't commit the cardinal sin of putting interesting before delicious." Beyond their playful, tradition-snubbing instincts, Lustbader and Vincent crank out plates that are all about flavor — generally, layers of them.
Sweet-and-sour eggplant is loaded up with so many goodies (pancetta, cashews, fried wild rice and puffy pita rounds) that the nominal star of the plate is hidden from view, but dig around, and you'll be happy. Niblets of sweet corn with peanuts and mint are jazzed up with Thai chili sauce; charred broccoli sits above a lemon-accented yogurt sauce ringed with bright chili oil.
Besides the sortallini, there is also pici pasta (hand-rolled strands), the noodles not quite precisely pici but, tossed with bacon and given a persuasive jalapeno jolt, absolutely delicious. Fusilli Jerry is a "Seinfeld" reference, and no, the noodles aren't upright, but buried under a blanket of tomato sauce, sausage chunks and cheese and, again, yummy.
More unexpected treats include crab salad, served alongside not-quite waffle fries made of piped mashed potatoes in a pate a choux batter; and onion rings, fried in a Parmesan batter and topped with fresh Parmesan. (These beauties cry out for a big burger, but that would be too, well, expected.)
Despite the haphazard nature of the menu, the kitchen wows with precision, again and again. Swordfish boasts a beautiful exterior char while remaining wonderfully moist inside; bavette steak, served in wide slices, emerges perfectly medium-rare over a bed of dirty rice flecked with peas. Pecan-smoked ribs, which Giant hopes to make available for catering on Sundays (one of two days the restaurant is closed), have just the right amount of chew and bone-sticking stubbornness, glazed with a just-sweet-enough sauce.
When it comes to sweets, "neither of is a pastry chef," said Vincent. "We had help from Scott Green (Travelle), and Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate) helped us a ton."
Thus assisted, the kitchen manages a few nice sweets. Cajeta ice cream is rolled into large balls and coated with pecan streusel and freeze-dried strawberries, topped with drizzles of cinnamon sugar and cajeta; see if you don't agree that the effect, as Vincent intended, is rather like a Good Humor strawberry shortcake bar. A yellow-cake crepe (the batter made with milk-pureed cake, folded over ricotta, roasted cherries and cocoa nibs and topped with hot fudge and pistachio), is a surprisingly light-tasting indulgence.
I also liked the simple blueberries in ginger cream, but that dessert is about to change.
Service is smart and team-oriented; one or more of your dishes might be delivered by Vincent or Lustbader himself. Regular servers are competent guides through Perlman's no-usual-suspects wine list.
As one might imagine, Giant is a cramped and cheerfully noisy place, not the place for a just-between-us conversation. The couple next to me one night, for instance, had been married only a few weeks, and they didn't tell me that.