Warm beignets with parsnip cream Credit: Matthew Gilson

There are beignets for dessert at Gideon Sweet, Matthias Merges and Graham Elliot’s reunion of sorts in the Randolph Street space that once housed the latter chef’s Graham Elliot Bistro.

The beignets come with a surprise if you’re not careful. Bite into them a certain way and they spurt hot parsnip cream all over your digits. If you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll just accept this for what it is and greedily lick your fingers. Ideally, the hot icing would announce itself inside your mouth after you take in the warm, sugary dough—but hey, it can happen to anybody. Just dip the doughnut’s remains in the little ramekin of thick, hot, darkly bitter chocolate sauce and you’ll likely be laughing out loud at the pure pornography of it:

Camera zooms in on money shot.

You: “Check, please!”

And scene.

This is the memorable work of pastry chef Mari Katsumura, daughter of the late, great Yoshi Katsumura of Lakeview’s eponymous Yoshi’s Cafe, a restaurant that occupies its own unforgotten corner of Chicago restaurant history. (More about her desserts later.)

Indeed, there’s a formidable amount of Chicago restaurant history behind Gideon Sweet (the name of an heirloom apple). Merges and Elliot used to work together, the latter under the former, at Charlie Trotter’s during years when extraordinarily important things were happening there. The chefs (and many of their colleagues) went on to have distinguished careers. Elliot made a name for himself with foie gras lollipops and the like at Avenues at the Peninsula, then played that gig into a series of audacious but no longer extant restaurants. Meantime he became a television star and Top Chef judge.

Merges—who among many other singularities was one of America’s earliest adopters of restaurant sous vide cooking—opened a little place in Avondale called Yusho. The chef’s interpretation of a Japanese izakaya, it offered thrilling snacks and fresh, imaginative cocktails to wash them down with, a combination that made it an essential Chicago restaurant in the early part of this decade.

It also served as the launching pad for his Folkart Restaurant Management. Yusho and its outposts are no more now, but Merges has been on a six-year tear, responsible for Billy Sunday in Logan Square, A10 in Hyde Park, Lucky Dorr in Wrigleyville, and Old Irving Brewing in Irving Park.

Now he and Elliot have tapped chef Michael Shrader,* from the last spot (and Urban Union before that). Here he’s executing a menu that’s more Yusho-like than anything previously mentioned, featuring just more than a dozen small plates with a very slight Asian bias, fairly complementary to a beverage program developed by longtime Merges collaborator and Trotter’s vet Alex Bachman.

On its face, this is all good news, especially when one’s confronted with a pair of ovoid croquettes, crispy tots filled with an unctuous bone marrow composite and draped with a briny marine one-two punch of shimmering bonito flakes and crab-infused butter. Another oceanic surge arrives in the form of a length of sweet king crab leg countered by salty trout roe and uni butter, the latter transcending its current restaurant ubiquity. Same goes for a tempura-battered oyster paired with a single shiso leaf. But grilled hamachi collar—a simple yet lushly indulgent treat one could occasionally pick over at Yusho—was on the occasion I met it a letdown: undersize, dry, and stringy in comparison.

Tubers make two notable appearances, one the M.C. Escher of street food and state-fair cuisine: a spiralized potato chip draped with sour cream and a ghostly sprinkle of bottarga. The other is a ziggurat of deep-fried, curry-imbued shredded sweet potato that looks like a heap of garnish but incites repeated plunges into its seemingly endless depths.

A French onion soup special spiked with sherry and egg yolk for body was slight on cheese but gratifyingly murky, with deep onion flavor, while a tensile lamb-and-zucchini meatball atop a spread of harissa-spiced yogurt makes a case for allowing proteins to perform on their own merits, with just the simplest of accompaniments.

And yet the kitchen is inconsistent when it comes to red meat. The filling of a braised goat tostada is possessed of a similarly prominent caprid intensity, but it’s stringy and tough. Pigtail agnolotti doused in demi-glace are a bummer, well on the raw side of the al dente barrier, with grainy pork crumbles for filling. On a slow night a venison tenderloin with parsnips—perhaps the most traditionally
entreelike dish I encountered at Gideon Sweet—arrived mercilessly overcooked. It didn’t take our server long to realize we weren’t going to take more than one bite of it before he hurriedly took it away and took it off the bill.

One of Gideon Sweet’s greatest strengths is pastry chef Katsumura, who’s worked all over town, but most recently at Ty Fujimara’s “casual fine dining” Lakeview spot Entente, where I had a sassafras profiterole that still haunts my dreams. Apart from the beignets, she’s topped a warm apple tart with a quenelle of cheddar cheese ice cream, embraced citrus season with a palate-scouring red-grapefruit parfait with Meyer lemon sherbet, and constructed an astonishing take on Filipino halo halo, a towering sundae of purple sweet-potato ice cream given abundant texture with fruity jellies and ices.

The other ace in the hole here is the cocktail program by Bachman, a sorcerer with rare and obscure ingredients. The FDA-proscribed tonka bean warms the sweet, rummy Gold on the Ceiling. Roasted barley bitters form the backbone of a stiff mezcal-and-sotol Round Two, while A Monarch’s Soda is a dry sparkling rosé adjusted with Chartreuse, bitters, and a wedge of galangal root. Seven tiny shots with one-bite garnishes function as curious apperitivi and digestivi, like tequila with a pungent black-garlic sangrita or sherry with a pickled green cherry tomato.

Not to dismiss the contributions of Elliot, but Gideon Sweet seems in some ways a rebirth of Merges’s Yusho, which is an exciting prospect. I encountered enough duds to indicate it hasn’t hit its stride, but frequent specials and menu changes display an agility in the kitchen, and a potential for a future worth keeping an eye on.  v

Update: Shrader has since left; the new chef is John Phillips.