North Pond

Note: Chef Bruce Sherman just won the James Beard Award for the Great Lakes region. These are my impressions from my brunch there in February.

North Pond - Chicago, IL

North Pond Dining Room (Taken from starchefs.com)

North Pond takes its name from its location in the Lincoln Park Nature Conservatory. Chef-partner Bruce Sherman has been with the restaurant since 1999. He was named by Food and Wine as one of the 10 Best New Chefs in 2003, and just won the James Beard award for Best Chef Great Lakes. Additionally, North Pond was named as one of the Top 10 Farm-to-Table restaurants in the country by Epicurious Magazine, a list which incidentally also included Cinque Terre in Portland, ME.  Despite all of the accolades, the restaurant has been unable to achieve a Michelin Star and is considered arguably the foremost omission. Chef Sherman earned a degree in economics from University of Pennsylvania and actually did not work in a kitchen until his late 20s. His love for cooking developed while living in India for 4 years, following his college graduation.

Chef Sherman has a difficult project because of the restaurant’s  famous history prior to its existence as a restaurant. For generations, the space was used as a place for people to warm up while ice skating on the pond. Given the familiarity of the space and its deep history, Chef Sherman is tasked with developing his own culinary style while also acknowledging the historic space. The balancing act between past and present reminds me of a claim (concerning visual arts) made by Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project: “For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what    has been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature, but figural. Only dialectical images are genuinely historical—that is, not archaic.” 

Benjamin’s argument is especially applicable to restaurants located in historical settings that necessarily conjure a relationship between past and present. A restaurant cannot just live in the past because that would disregard how its clientele has been influenced by contemporary gastronomy. Arrows (Ogunquit, ME) is an excellent restaurant because of the synthesis it achieves between past and present, marrying time-honored techniques with contemporary menu items. On the other hand, a restaurant like Jordon Pond House (in Acadia, ME) is “archaic,” serving the kind of cuisine it served fifty years ago.  I was interested in dining at North Pond as I was curious to see how it was able to negotiate between contemporary cuisine and its time-honored location. En route from the bus stop to the restaurant, I passed a large number of Canadian geese, of which I took the picture below (with my cellular phone):

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There were also a number of yuppie types walking their dogs around the pond. However, since I don’t like dogs I opted not to take any pictures of them. Given the cold weather, I was surprised to find the restaurant quite crowded upon my arrival for my 12:30 brunch reservation. The clientele mainly consisted of a mix between elderly folk and yuppies—not necessarily the most adventurous crowd, yet I think that the restaurant’s pristine location virtually guarantees financial success. There are two dining rooms: a larger one with bigger tables, and a smaller one with a fireplace as a centerpiece. As a solo diner, I sat in the “fireplace room,” at a nice two-top directly in front of the lake. For brunch, North Pond offers a 3-course prix fixe menu consisting of appetizer, main course, and dessert, with several options for each course. There were many tempting choices, yet I opted to start with “shrimp, grits,” followed by “beef, potato.” For dessert, I asked my server, Shannon, what he would recommend. He stated that the “apple, caramel” dessert was his favorite, so I took his word and ordered it. While all three of my selections are always on the menu, I was surprised to find that many of their menu options were relatively new and therefore not yet on the website menu.

The first item to arrive from the kitchen was a slice of cinnamon raisin toast. It had literally been years since I’d had cinnamon raisin toast as I generally don’t care for raisins or cinnamon. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of the cinnamon raisin toast. On the heels of the toast came my starter of “shrimp, grits.” All of the items on the menu are named by a central ingredient pairing, with the ancillary ingredients represented by a subtitle. In the case of this dish, the shrimp and grits are accompanied by pickled green tomatoes and lobster bisque. I lost my picture of this, so the picture below is taken from the blog patlikestoeat:

Given the heft of the jalapeno-cheddar grits, I was grateful that the lobster bisque did not have any discernible creaminess and actually tasted similar to lobster stock. The bisque imparted explosive richness without tasting heavy, and the shrimp were appropriately firm. I found each of the components superb and greatly enjoyed the dish. However, the large number of ingredients departs from the fare found at most farm to table restaurants, such as Chez Panisse or Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Where Alice Waters and Dan Barber are known for the ascetic, intuitive pairings of locally-grown ingredients (particularly vegetables), Chef Sherman uses the pairing of two ingredients merely as his point of departure. To be sure, I was grateful that he hadn’t limited himself to the interaction between the shrimp and the grits, and instead added the rich lobster bisque.

The next dish to arrive was the soup item from the appetizer list, generously provided “compliments of the kitchen.” I can’t remember the exact title of the dish as the online menu has not been updated and I did not make a mental note of the title as I had not ordered it. At any rate, the soup was made from a lentil base and also featured pureed apples, with pickled apples and a pork croquette. The dish is pictured below:

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I really enjoyed this dish as I am quite fond of lentil-based soups. Similar to the shrimp and grits dish, it involved a large number of ingredients and a prominent interplay between textures.  It is safe to say that I never would have ordered it given that I am not fond of pork. However, I was pleasantly surprised as the heavy, fatty taste of the pork was nicely complemented by the heavy, lean taste of the lentil-apple puree. However, arguably my favorite aspect of the dish was the red pickled apples. North Pond tends to skew toward acidic flavors, which is perfectly in line with my own palate. I am grateful to have tried this dish as it represents a bold move; there aren’t many fine dining restaurants in Chicago that offer lentil-based soup, though it has come to my attention that both Blackbird and Sepia have done variations of it. I suspect that Chef Sherman may have developed an affinity for lentils while living in India. At any rate, the dish represents a prime example of his cuisine. Instead of constructing the dish around locally-grown ingredients, he showcases an ingredient associated with East India. I believe that the interplay between foreign and domestic ingredients  defines Chef Sherman as not especially in dialogue with the regional nature setting. Instead of formulating his culinary style through simple farm-to-table fare characteristic of the setting, Chef Sherman largely disregards the setting altogether and constructs dishes that are not at all simple and often involve international ingredients.

Following the soup, my main dish arrived. I rarely order beef in restaurants unless it is on a tasting menu, yet the fish option was paired with the Mediterranean combination of nicoise olives, couscous, mussels, and tomato-fennel broth—a similar combination to a fish stew that I once ordered at Street and Company (in Portland, ME) and of which I was not enthusiastic. The beef dish was titled “beef, potato,” and was accompanied by a puree of root vegetables, a popover, wilted spinach, and a red wine reduction sauce. The combination of beef and potato is precisely the kind of pairing that I think one would expect to encounter at a restaurant in Chicago. However, Chef Sherman drowns out the classical pairing through adding a large number of additional ingredients. The dish is pictured below:

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I apologize for the overly intimate framing, which renders large portions of the vegetable puree and the browned fingerling potatoes indiscernible. The beef was a hanger steak, cooked perfectly to a medium-rare temperature while charred on the outside. Hanger steak does not possess the smooth, fatty polish of more prestigious cuts of beef, yet I am fond of its messy, beefy texture. This dish represented another prime example of Chef Sherman’s bountiful technique, whereby every dish includes a wealth of ingredients. For most chefs, the combination of potatoes, a popover, and a hearty vegetable puree would be redundant. However, by having each item coexist on the same plate, Chef Sherman grants the diner the freedom to explore and pair the ingredients in different ways.  The combination of steak and potatoes is a simple pairing that is classically Chicagoan. Additionally, the popover represents the sort of treat that one would enjoy while warming up from ice skating on the nearby pond. I found that the red wine reduction nicely unified the ingredients, pairing well even with the popover.

Following the excellent main dish I expected to receive my apple dessert but instead received another complimentary dish, an item on the dinner dessert menu consisting of cranberry sorbet, white chocolate semifreddo, crushed candied walnuts, candied cranberries and orange zest. I’m not sure why the kitchen elected to make me a dish that wasn’t even on the brunch dessert menu—I had told Shannon (with regard to the soup) that I appreciated the acidity of the pickled apples, so perhaps he had taken note. At any rate, I enjoyed the acidity of the cranberry sorbet. I apologize for my horrible camera technique: the picture was taken from too close-up and fails to include some of the dessert.

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Shortly after finishing the cranberry/white chocolate dish, my apple dessert arrived, and again the title of “apple, caramel” was deceptively simple. The components involved a tart of mutsu apple and caramel, caramel sauce, cinnamon ice cream, and a salt and pepper streusel. Similar to the beef/potato dish, I found this dish to engage in a dialectic between the contemporary and the traditional. The combination of apple tart with ice cream is classically American, while the salt and pepper streusel is part of the contemporary move to incorporate savory elements to desserts. The pepper flavor added gravity without any textural change to the traditional pie a la mode composition—overall, an excellent, deceptively simple dish and a great culmination to the meal.

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North Pond is a challenging restaurant because its location creates the expectation for regionally-defined, simple farm-to-table cuisine. Moreover, the fact that it is located on a well-known nature landmark used as an ice-skating pond for generations means that the restaurant is—even more than most restaurants—obligated to engage within a dialectical relationship between past and present. I am not convinced that the restaurant quite achieves the temporal synthesis realized by a restaurant like Arrows. While Chef Sherman crafts interesting interpretations of classics like steak and potatoes or pie a la mode, he also incorporates ingredients not characteristic of the region, such as lobster bisque and lentils. His ingredient combinations are largely idiosyncratic and (with a couple mild exceptions, such as the steak and apple dishes) not really formed through engagement with dishes associated with the region. That said, I found each of the dishes to be explosively flavored and delicious, and actually appreciated the abundance of ingredients. While the restaurant perhaps does not synthesize past and present, the fact that it lives ‘in the present’ is definitely preferable to archaic restaurants like, for example, Berghoff’s in Chicago.  I do feel that the substantial praise garnered by Chef Sherman is well-deserved, and also feel that he deserves a Michelin Star. As for the lack of a Michelin Star, I wonder whether Chef Sherman is simply a victim of his restaurant’s setting. When people dine at a restaurant that is located within nature, they expect a culinary style adhering to the standard-bearing design initiated by Alice Waters at Chez Pannisse: simple, uncluttered compositions whereby flavor is achieved through seasonality. In contrast, Chef Sherman represents something of a culinary anthropologist, as dishes like the pork/lentil soup demonstrate how his style was formed more through his global travel than his engagement with the nature setting. Therefore, I wouldn’t necessarily classify his cuisine as even farm-to-table, and his inclusion within the Epicurious list is puzzling. Nevertheless, I did find the setting comfortable and the cuisine sufficiently challenging (and delicious) and would not hesitate to return.

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