Certain restaurants and restaurant groups are known kitchen incubators. Trotter’s. Alinea and company. Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. They’ve all nurtured legions of cooks and then let them spread out, like seeds cast into the wind, and grow into chefs.
I suspect Hogsalt Hospitality is the next breeding ground for talented young chefs. Empire Sodikoff—its leader himself begat by LEYE (and before that the French Laundry, like Grant Achatz)—has begun shedding chefs who move on to do their own remarkable work. Look at Jason Vaughan, said to be the driving force behind the Au Cheval burger, who took over culinary operations for Heisler Hospitality and upended Indian food at Pub Royale. Then there’s Forester Sorensen, the Au Cheval and Green Street Smoked Meats alum behind the expertly constructed sandwiches at Wyler Road. Now quietly comes Bar Marta, an unassuming neighborhood joint in the former Hunters & Tails space, opened by Austin Baker, a former cook at Le Bernardin and a longtime Hogsalt operative who helped open nearly a half dozen of the group’s restaurants, and remains a partner in a few of them.
Baker’s brought along with him so many former Hogsalt colleagues you wonder if it constitutes a brain drain back on the mothership. They include Jeff Pikus, a former development chef whose successful avoidance of the spotlight obscured the significant, years-long influence he’s had on the group’s food.
Despite all that talent, Bar Marta opened quietly, with little of the slobbering food-media foreplay that an opening of this import usually entails. Even now it barely calls attention to itself, with a subdued sign, covered windows, and a side entrance on Washtenaw off Chicago. Inside it is squinting dim, a long dining room dominated by a marble bar, white glazed brick barely reflecting enough light to read the menu. It’s almost Gilt-like, definitely Hogsalty in its Victorian gloom. The menu reads that way too: appetizer dominated (they have the good sense not to call them “small plates” or “shareable”), with a few entrees and fewer pastas and sides.
Still, the predominance of most of these starters underscores the truth in Bar Marta’s name: this is good drinking food, truly communal, with the exception of a handful of salads. It begins with a dish of olives and spicy-sour dill pickles, starkly different from the treacly preserved vegetable candy most restaurants traffic in these days. Lengths of meaty charred eggplant seasoned with smoky paprika and tarted up with sumac are cooled down with Greek yogurt, tahini, and buttermilk, and accompanied by thick pepita-and-sesame-studded crackers. Chicken liver paté enriched with sherry is smeared thickly on hunks of grilled bread and speared with shards of crispy lacquered chicken skin. The mineral gaminess and textural oleaginousness of lamb tartare and its accompanying protein-rich raw egg yolk is cut with chopped almonds, caper leaves, and potent harissa aioli.
French fries are an extraordinarily refreshing change; pale blond, they’re blanched and double-fried Kennebecs that achieve an almost angelically light crispiness and ethereally creamy interior. That’s in opposition to a side of earthy Chinese broccoli leaves—stems sliced thinly on the bias and seasoned simply with garlic and chile—that are dense and fleshy enough in their own way to satisfy the most bloodthirsty carnivore.
Salads too are something more than just a collection of greens to offset the less virtuous things you’re eating. The Caesar, along with its typical umami-boosting accoutrements (Parmesan, anchovy-spiked dressing), is further powered by bonito flakes in the dressing and sprinkled on top, providing an umami explosion in the mouth. Meanwhile an iceberg salad is given full dimension with a creamy avocado dressing and a liberal sprinkling of nutty farro grains.
It’s quite a selection to dither over with a group, but among larger entrees there are a few that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Buoyant yet hearty meatballs with bacon ground into the pork have the structure of sturdy, resilient sponges, able to soak up the powerfully glutamic red sauce. A simple roast chicken sits atop a bed of crispy sourdough bread fried in poultry fat. It’s so chewy and saturated with the bird’s delicious lipids it ought be served on its own.
My only real disappointments at Bar Marta were the pasta dishes I tried. Both an uni-king crab ravioli special and ruddy garganelli with pork ragu spiked with chicken liver were doughy and undercooked, so far from any ideal state of al dente they distracted from the appealing saucing. It’s an executional anomaly for a kitchen commanded by Pikus, who’s always done pasta exceptionally in the past.
Among four desserts a hazelnut chocolate tart with Nutella ganache provided a dense, rich footnote to a relatively light meal of shared appetizers and drinks from the list of rigorously orthodox classic cocktails, while a lighter and more cheffy banana-rum cake draped in glassy caramel was an appropriate ending to a visit that consisted largely of entrees and bottles of dry cava.
All over Bar Marta you can see the building blocks of Hogsalt, but they merely lay a foundation for a group of impressive restaurant professionals clearly going their own way. v