BY ANTHONY TODD | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
Whenever I mention to anyone that they need to go to 42 Grams they have one of two reactions: 1) “I can’t wait to go!” or 2) “Where is it again? Uptown? I don’t believe it.”
Well, it’s true – what some writers (including myself) have called the best new restaurant in Chicago is hiding behind an anonymous-looking storefront in Uptown, the only sign of its existence an obscure, frosted-glass label on the door. Chef Jake Bickelhaupt and co-owner Alexa Welsh have been turning out award-winning food for months now – and they just released their fall menu.
First, a note about the atmosphere. 42 Grams is small. There are only 8 or 10 seats, depending on whether you opt for the counter or the single table. It’s BYOB (which keeps the price down a bit) and is incredibly convivial. While the food may be fine-dining fussy, the feel of the place is anything but, and guests can talk, wander around, ask questions of the chef and staff and wear pretty much whatever they want. As befits 42 Grams’ status as a former underground pop-up dinner club, they don’t stand on ceremony.
If you visited the restaurant in its first nine months, you’ll recognize a few dishes. A seafood tribute to Charlie Trotter, served on his old plates, combines prawn, sea vegetables, phytoplankton and caviar, was a big hit before. One of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had, made with A5 Miyazaki Wagyu beef, is still the hit of the meat courses.
One of the new dishes is a Thai-inspired take on sturgeon, which combines green curry with shredded chicken skin, a jasmine rice foam and cashews. The intention with the sturgeon was to take the place of chicken, explained Chef Bickelhaupt. “I don’t really like cooking chicken. We had two couples who lived in Thailand tell us that ‘we haven’t gotten good Thai food since we came back, but this is spot on.’ I’ve never been there, so I take their word for it.”
Another features Skuna Bay salmon, infused with lapsang souchong tea that is half-cooked in advance and then seared to order. “It’s a transitional course for the fall, explained Bickelhaupt. “It looks like it’s going to be very hearty, but it’s actually very delicate. When you cut into it, it’s rare and flakes apart.” It’s served atop bread made from spent brewing grains and served in a beautiful bowl with Matsutake mushrooms and miso butter. The mushrooms, sometimes called “pine” mushrooms, help to lead diners into the next course, which is spiked with Italian syrup made from pine buds.
The most innovative new addition to the menu breaks all the tasting menu rules. It’s not a vegetable, fish, meat or dessert, and it’s not a small bite of decadent fat. It’s actually a grain course, based around a savory cultured barley “porridge.” The process of making the cultured barley takes five days (and involves words like “inoculation”) but the end product is almost pure umami. The porridge is mixed with crispy pig heart, house-made fermented soy sauce, and pig jowl.
42 Grams is going strong, and tickets are sure to sell quickly for this winter menu. Check availability here. Dinner is approximately $200 per person, all-inclusive, and runs somewhere around 15 courses (it may vary by day).
Anthony Todd is a local freelance writer.