Haute Cuisine à la Pilsen: A local organic restaurant heralds the advance of the yuppies

Confit of duck with celery root puree and roasted apples (Ellis Calvin)

Confit of duck with celery root puree and roasted apples (Ellis Calvin)

First came the artists, attracted by cheap rent. Then the hipsters moved to Pilsen, lured by prints and paintings ready to be turned into silk-screened T-shirts. Now, though the first wave of artists are already turning their sights toward other neighborhoods, the final herald of oncoming gentrification has arrived: the chic organic restaurant Nightwood, sister restaurant of Lula Café in Logan Square and already beloved of North Siders. And it’s the best damn death knell I’ve ever tasted.

The menu, which changes daily, is assembled from organic ingredients gathered at Chicago’s farmers markets. But Nightwood is no hippie café. Dishes show a French influence, with pâté and cream soups appearing often in the appetizer list, and the presentations (and prices) reflect the chefs’ educated approach to fine cuisine. For a restaurant so in love with local and organic food, Nightwood displays surprisingly little commitment to the other major tenet of sustainable eating: on one recent evening, we were hard-pressed to find enough vegetarian fare to make a meal, in the end limited to just one entrée choice. Nightwood’s devotion to organic food seems to stem from an aesthetic rather than a philosophical appreciation.

Unusually for a Chicago restaurant, many of Nightwood’s offerings revolve around fish. The whitefish agnolotti appetizer had a clean fish taste, softened by its thin pasta wrapping and sauce of browned butter, pine nuts, and crunchy rosemary crumbs. A velvety pureed soup of smoked trout and crème fraiche was “like drinking trout juice,” my companion said, “but in a good way.” An entrée of grilled whole Wisconsin trout, deboned but with the skin and head attached, was similarly assertive: accompanied only by a bed of vinegary sautéed cabbage, the fish’s crispy skin and firm flesh was full-flavored, peppery, and deliciously fresh.

That grand classic, confit of duck, was just as good. Served with fragrant stewed apples and dark greens, it tasted like the essence of autumn. Other meaty offerings, untested but tempting, included a $13 cheeseburger that is always on the menu and a rare rabbit dish.

The rabbit, unfortunately, has received a number of negative reviews on Yelp, which would make it one of the few, but not the only, imperfectly executed ideas. Short rib pierogi with an herbal sour cream sauce could have been a hearty, nostalgic take on traditional fare, but while the dumplings were pleasingly light and savory, they were overwhelmed by a thick brown gravy that turned the dish instantly into stroganoff. The single vegetarian entrée of handmade rigatoni in garlic cream, with kale, diced olives, and pumpkin seeds, was smoky and interestingly sharp, but the pasta was thick and leaden. Overall, the simpler dishes that showcased particular ingredients seemed to fare better than the more complex preparations of carbs.

Dessert choices ranged from the charmingly simple–warm cookies, sliced fruit–to the celebrated French classics. A small slice of pear tarte Tatin with raspberry coulis was an extremely sweet farewell to summer, the late-season raspberries turning jammy with their own sugars. The maple pot de crème promised more autumnal flavor, and while the texture was wonderfully smooth and dense, it failed to deliver: the custard was more eggy than anything else, and had I not known it was supposedly maple, I would have guessed it was a brown sugar dessert. But the cider-soaked apple slices and Calvados whipped cream on top made it a sweet and fitting end to the meal after all.

Nightwood was crowded on a Thursday night, and reservations for the trendy spot are recommended. The brick walls and floor-to-ceiling windows recall an upscale pub, if the bar servers changed your silverware after each course. The restaurant has been receiving a lot of press attention, but at least half of it expresses shock that such a restaurant has popped up on the South Side. The novelty may be attractive, but it’s worth visiting for the food alone. They’d just better keep their hands off of tacos and carnitas.
Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted St. Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30pm-11pm; Sunday brunch, 9am-2:30pm. Appetizers $7-$20, main courses $13-$30. (312)526-4551. nightwoodrestaurant.com