In the past several years, the “farm to table” craze has swept the restaurant world. Many restaurants do it well, but perhaps none so well in Chicago as Grass Fed in Bucktown, Illinois. Their commitment to local/regional, sustainable, and fresh carries over from the food menu into the beverage program and informs everything about this charming and excellent restaurant.
Located at 1721 North Damen in Chicago, Grass Fed opened its doors in the summer of 2012. Their original concept was to offer a menu primarily focused on grass-fed local beef with a series of seasonal sides and the occasional “non-beef” special. Over the past year, they have evolved the menu to add more permanent offerings in the realms of poultry, fish, and vegetarian entrees while still keeping that central focus on the superb beef from Wisconsin. Their beverage menu, too, has expanded to offer a superior variety of domestic wines, beers, and spirits.
On a recent visit, my guest and I were treated to a variety of samples from the updated menu created by their new head chef, Jason Myers. He describes his food as “simple” and on one level he is correct. All of the ingredients are fresh and flavorful.
No molecular gastronomy needed here, as Myers’ menu delights the senses, always managing to retain a sense of freshness and simplicity that one would expect from a farm to table dining location. No matter the dish, every major flavor was individually discernible in each bite. Those singular flavors merge to create cunningly complex layers of flavor. In short, Chef Jason Myers creates culinary perfection through an inventive imagination and clear technical skill.
We sampled six menu items, all of them worth visiting again to try for a second time.
Caramelized Onion Buttermilk Biscuits: Warm, moist, and perfectly-prepared buttermilk biscuits are filled with caramelized onions and spices. These come two to a plate, great for sharing. On the side you will find a ramekin of honey butter and several slices of pungent blue cheese. When you spread the honey butter and blue cheese onto the warm biscuit and take a bite, the combination of salty, sweet, and savory is melt-in-your-mouth delectable.
Crispy Duck Confit: The preparation of the duck leg is about as perfect as possible – crunchy skin, fork-tender moist meat. The duck rests atop frisée with a sauce of chorizo-lentil vinaigrette. The chorizo lends a touch of ‘hot sauce’ flavor, but far more complex and interesting than bottled hot sauce.
Slow Roasted Baby Eggplant: One of the few vegetarian options, this preparation of a whole baby eggplant is topped with cherry tomatoes, poblano peppers, and a house-made cumin farmer’s cheese. The cumin is a surprising flavor, but adds a dash of unique elegance to this dish.
Sautéed Whitefish: The whitefish filet is pan seared to a delicate, crunchy caramel color on the outside yet remains tender, flaky, and moist on the inside. The fish is set atop delicately steamed artichokes, fingerling potatoes, toasted pine nuts, and an intensely flavorful sauce gribiche. The sauce adds just the perfect touch of tangy to the other flavors.
Goat Cheese White Grits: For the vegetarians in the group (or as a sharable item for just about anyone), this take on the South’s most iconic food item is another flavorful combination of various flavor profiles. The creamy/cheese white grits are topped with a ragu of spring vegetables, garlic herb butter, and shaved Parmesan.
Grilled Grass-fed NY Strip Steak: Tender, succulent, perfectly-prepared. What elevates this portion of steak above ‘normal’ preparations is the house-made brown-butter gnocchi. Add to that a mixture of spring onion, peas, and trumpet royal mushrooms. Finally, drizzle on some tremendously tasty chimichurri. This is what many people come to Grass Fed to experience, and it’s worth the visit.
The beverage service also deserves special note. All of the beers are local or regional, an eclectic and unusual menu that should satisfy any beer lover. The wines are all domestic and from smaller, family-owned vineyards again focusing Grass Fed on the concept of supporting local, family, fresh, and sustainable.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the beverage menu centers on the superlative cocktails. Several house-infused concoctions are available from the bar, rotating seasonally to reflect what is fresh and local. Most of the liquors are either local (from Chicago-based distilleries such as Few, Koval, and Northshore) or reflect small batch producers from other parts of the country.
On our visit, we sampled several of the house special cocktails. Their Smoked Black Manhattan (house smoked Buffalo Trace, Averna Amaro, Angostura) will redefine your concept of a popular classic cocktail. The smoky flavor creates an entirely different flavor profile than a traditional Manhattan and sets this drink apart as truly distinctive. On the suggestion of the server, I opted for a second version of this drink but substituted the Pecan Infused Rum for the bourbon. Once again, what a surprisingly delightful take on a traditional cocktail. The pecan flavor infuses a savory, nuttiness into the drink and the rum offers just enough sweetness to offset that and blend with the bitter ingredients. Complex and delightful.
The Smoldering Rose (jalapeño infused tequila, house-made blood orange simple syrup, lime juice) comes to the table in a small glass bottle reminiscent of something you’d expect to see at an old-time soda shoppe. The spicy, jalapeño flavor is just subtle enough that it does not overpower, and the blood orange is a perfect level of sweetness to offset any heat.
In design, Grass Fed has achieved a rare balance. It feels like a homey, farm kitchen with a modernly hip, urban edge. Twenty-foot high white, clapboard walls which disappear into a black ceiling, twelve-foot high whitewashed shelves behind the bar that have been strategically stocked with decorative kitchen items and booze to the point of feeling ‘abundant’, but not jam packed or cluttered, wood slatted kitchen chairs painted white opposite green banquettes . . . all of these lending a clean, modern take on the farm to table experience. The ‘vibe’ of the staff is pleasant and highly accommodating, always open to personalizing your experience. All of this just adds that little touch of ‘elegance’, making Grass Fed a perfect fit for Bucktown.
All photos by Donna Binbek, of Donna Binbek Photography.