The man behind the Chicago dining scene is Chef Grant Achatz, the former French Laundry chef who made his name with his fine-dining, three-Michelin-star restaurant Alinea.
Over the years, Achatz — with his innovative molecular gastronomical creations — has transformed the way people dined, where the food is more theater than sustenance. While gaining near cult status with Alinea, Achatz opened Next, an experimental restaurant that changes themes every season, and earlier this spring a casual restaurant Roister in Chicago’s West Loop warehouse district.
Prior to visiting Chicago, I knew I had little chance of getting a reservations at Alinea, especially since it has been closed for the first half of this year and a new version would unveil itself just a few weeks before I arrived. So instead, I decided to go the casual route and check out Roister.
A note about reservations: Achatz has pioneered the ticketing system for restaurants where you pay in advance for dinner like a ticket for a concert. (Dinner at Alinea ranges from $175 to $385 per person depending on what part of the restaurant you choose to eat.) At Roister, you will also need to pay advance if you choose the tasting menu option (but at a more reasonable $85 to $95 per person), but you can just pay a deposit if you choose the ala carte option.
I paid a deposit of $35 for my ala carte reservation at the Hearth Bar seating, where you sit at the counter and watch the open kitchen, which has a 6-foot-tall brick-lined hearth oven as its centerpiece. (Another note about reservations: The Alinea reservation system, also used to book seats at Roister, only allows bookings in parties of two, four, or six. Since I was a solo diner, I had to pay online a deposit for two people, and then email the restaurant to let them know I only needed one seat. Then my deposit was applied to the cost of my final dinner bill, got it?)
Roister, which opened in April, is a large dining space and on the warm summer Sunday that I arrived for dinner, the glass walls of the warehouse-like building were open so it was almost like people were dining al fresco. Inside, the industrial and contemporary space is boisterous and loud, like a lounge.
Service is what you’d expect from people used to gaining Michelin stars, professional and plentiful. Someone is never that far if you ever need anything.
I started my night by trying a cocktail called “A Sour in the Key of Raffi” ($13), which attracted me because I love any drinks that remind me of a Pisco Sour. And this Raffi version did, with its CH Key Gin, slight flavoring from hearth-roasted bananas, French curry, lemon and the egg white foam. The drink was well-balanced and tasty.
The menu is designed by Roister’s main chef, Andrew Brochu. The eclectic menu had global touches like the “Chow Chow Mein” noodles with aged cabbage and the Japanese wagyu steak with uni butter. New Orleans come through with bites like hushpuppies and then you get something comforting and simple like the hearth-baked lasagne.
I tried a few starters and every bite was an OMG moment, from the umami-bomb flavors of the aged cheddar rillettes with truffle cauliflower and served with warm fry bread ($15) to the bright buttered pipe pasta and clams ($18) with lime flavors and a green chili ragout. Even a simple dish like the smoked oysters ($25) made with just garlic butter and breadcrumbs is done so well you imagine there must be some secret sauce for all that flavor in each juicy oyster.
The menu has three items that are large plates designed to be shared by two to six people, including a whole chicken where the parts of the chicken are prepared three ways: fried, roasted and confit. Of course, I had to skip these options (other large plates include a porterhouse steak and roasted duck) since I was dining alone. But the kitchen sent me a complimentary tasting of the chicken dish. Ironically, they sent me the portion that were the fried chicken thighs.
As some of you know, I’m not a fan of deep-fried foods, especially fried chicken. But I didn’t want to insult the kitchen for sending out the comp dish, so I tried a few pieces and I have to admit the fried pieces were incredibly crunchy and well-seasoned. They came with two dipping sauces of sunchokes and chamomile.
My entree that I did order was the pork butt with a “dark and stormy glaze” served with red peas and shiso ($31). This bowl of shredded pork, unfortunately, was overly sweet from the dark and stormy glaze (which is inspired by the cocktail made with dark rum and ginger beer).
There are just three options for dessert, a watermelon sorbet with gummy chews like gummy bears, a foie gras pretzel creation, and a cookies and milk. Because I thought the foie gras might be too rich for dessert, I went for the refreshing watermelon sorbet ($8) to cap off summer. While everything was nicely done, it wasn’t necessarily an OMG moment.
The last bite
While the second half of dinner wasn’t as memorable as the first half, I still think back fondly of those flavor moments from the truffled cauliflower aged cheddar rillettes or the smoked baked oysters. There’s no dramatic show like I imagine you get from Alinea (although it’s fun to watch the large kitchen crew at work), but the flavors and expert execution of some dishes made Roister one of my favorite meals in Chicago.
BONUS: See my complete dinner with this video I pulled together of my dinner.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Roister, 951 W. Fulton Market, Chicago. Open Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. Reservations only, booked in advance online (tasting menu required full-priced ticket payments, while ala carte option requires a deposit). Service charge added to the bill. Major credit cards accepted. www.roisterrestaurant.com
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