It was a big birthday for our son Josh, our own Top Chef. In conspiracy with his beautiful wife, we planned a surprise party for him at Sprout, the Chicago-based restaurant of TV’s Top Chef contestant Dale Levitski. Top Chef is de rigueur TV viewing for many FoodBeests and both Chef Josh and I are avid fans. He’ll often call me the morning after a show just to compare notes about what happened the night before.
Sprout is in a small, unassuming space on Fullerton St. on Chicago’s north side, where it is nestled between a bar and an Italian restaurant. The front room had once been a bar patio and Chef Dale told us that the lannon stone on the walls had been recycled from the floor of the patio. The windows open onto the street so that in nice weather, they can be opened to balmy breezes (and car horns).
Our expectations for the food were high and mostly well-met. Someone did some real thinking about the food and it was playful, creative and executed extremely well. At the same time, as with any group of people, not everyone loved everything. We were a big group with a pretty wide variety of preferences, we tasted lots of different dishes, and had pretty widely divergent opinions
The menu is a $62 prix fixe with choices for appetizer, entrée and dessert, plus two complimentary dishes between those courses. Dale primarily deconstructs standard dishes and puts his own spin on them. The names are ambiguous (“Corn,” “Licorice,” “Egg,” “Mushroom,” “Sturgeon,” “Steak,” “Lillet”) and represent what the chef says is the primary ingredient in that dish.
One appetizer item that the menu called “Egg” is a play on a Lyonnaise salad with pork belly appearing in place of lardons and some lovely hidden French fries. The appetizer called “Foie Gras” refers to a foie gras mousse, which frankly had very little flavor at all, and little detectable foie gras. What saved the dish was a couple of lovely, well-cooked sweetbreads on top of the mousse and some beautiful seasonal asparagus and artichoke hearts that accompanied it. This FoodBeest didn’t think the mousse was worth its calories, fat grams and points and left it on the plate.
The appetizer course was followed by a thimble-sized, egg-cup-shaped serving of butternut squash soup. It was nicely layered, starting sweet (Mr. FB said “too sweet”) and finishing with a kick. It was tasty, but frankly the butternut squash soup that Chef Josh contributes nearly every Thanksgiving dinner is much better.
Entrees included the “Steak” that Mr. FB ordered, a surf & turf variation that included the heart of a strip steak laid on some fresh crab meat. What brought it out of the ordinary was the wasabi-accented crème fraiche with crunchy tobiko caviar mixed in. I had the “Pork,” which consisted of pork belly – crispy on the outside and mouth-melting on the inside – on an apple-potato latke. A black tree-ear-like Japanese mushroom mixed with tiny slices of baby artichoke, with just a hint of curry rounded out this dish and may have been my mouth’s favorite bits. Chef Josh had “Opakapaka,” a Hawaiian fish seasoned with miso and garnished with broth, butternut squash, orange bits and shrimp. He raved.
Dale includes what he calls his “signature” cheese course between the entrée and dessert. This was a ¼ grilled cheese sandwich with a huge fin of crispy cheese extruded from the crust end. Who doesn’t love grilled cheese, especially grilled cheese loaded with butter? Some of us loved it for it’s quality ingredients, simplicity and comfort value; others were not so impressed (“It was just grilled cheese.”)
For dessert, “Corn” was a brioche French toast covered with a creamy, sweet truffle-accented sauce, topped with ice cream and sprinkled with popcorn. “Pistachio” was the name of a deconstructed baklava with a burnt-sugar crispy swirl on top of it and a creamy mascarpone brick, which was described as “really, really, really good.” I had “Passion Fruit” which was totally mouth-tingling in it’s passion fruit power.
The food wasn’t the only remarkable part of this evening, Fellow FoodBeest.
We couldn’t have planned this evening any better. Not only did Chef Dale stop by our table to chat, but as luck would have it, Tiffany Faison and Carla Hall, both Top Chef All-Star “cheftestants” were in town for the “Live at the Girl and the Goat” segment on the Top Chef Finale that took place the night before and they had come to Sprout as Dale’s guests for dinner.
These chefs are seriously talented, creative, self-expressed human beings – and they are certainly our Fellow FoodBeests. They’ve become the rock stars of the culinary world. In plain language, these guys can cook!
If was Chef Josh (of course!) who first spotted Carla and Tiffany at the bar and a back room. Tiffany, who was much prettier in person than she was on TV, didn’t interact with any other guests in the restaurant that I could see. She was sitting alone at the bar when I walked by her on a visit the Ladies’ Room. She sat there with her back to the restaurant, hunched over herself, her long red hair nearly covering her face that was focused on the wine menu. Her body language made it pretty clear that she didn’t want to be disturbed. So we didn’t.
But as Carla was walking out past us, we waved to her. She was gracious and generous and came over and took photos and chatted with us, remembering that she had met Chef Josh once before at a Farmer’s Market.
Do I recommend Sprout, Fellow FoodBeest? Absolutely. It’s casual and friendly, while providing very interesting, thoughtful and creative food combinations. Not the singular best meal we have ever had (we’re a tough group of foodies), but it is a really good (albeit high end) value.
No question that the experience was heightened by the presence (or perhaps presents) of celebrity chefs we know and admire, but Sprout is well-worth your time and money. Give it a try if it’s convenient for you, maybe for a special occasion, and let us know what you thought.