A green papaya salad with midwestern shrimp is delicately sweet, sour, and spicy.
A green papaya salad with midwestern shrimp is delicately sweet, sour, and spicy. Credit: Anthony Soave

The great American food writer M.F.K. Fisher grew up with an ascetic grandmother big on boiling chickens, eating crackers soaked in hot milk, and sternly denying her family the sinful pleasures of the table. When the matriarch went away on religious retreats, the rest of the family would feast on pastries and bloody steak.

MFK is a new Spanish-influenced, seafood-focused restaurant that’s named for Fisher, located in a pocket of Lincoln Park/Lakeview that’s one of the more unimaginative neighborhoods in the city when it comes to food. Nevertheless, Grandmother wouldn’t be at ease here, least of all in the tiny subterranean space MFK inhabits, where former Drawing Room chef Nick Lacasse is turning out small plates of unvarnished simplicity that testify to the virtues of leaving good stuff alone. If you eat out often enough you know it’s not as common as it sounds.

Lacasse has the good sense not to obscure the attributes of rarefied salt-cured anchovies from northern Spain with anything more complicated than buttery toast and a light shower of lemon zest. If that sort of concentration of piscine intensity is too much there are lightly pickled boquerones, or white anchovies, mounted on grilled bread with shaved fennel and piquillo peppers. Either way, the fish is the focus on these little bites.

That same priority is evident among a selection of simple, mostly unadorned grilled sea creatures, particularly a skewer of head-on shrimp, dressed lightly in chile oil. These crustaceans are from one of the landlocked Indiana farms that are supplying restaurants all over town lately, though the shrimp’s firm, sweet, natural qualities are rarely evident. There’s no mistaking them here, particularly within the heads, full of hot, sweet viscera you’d be mistaken not to vacuum out. Things get relatively more complicated with a single seared sea scallop nestled in a bed of sweet corn grits, or a small octopus, which may not tenderize terribly well on the hot grill, but is so happily married to the accompanying charred lemon, fresh avocado, and thick, bracing green gazpacho that working it longer than your jaws are used to may not seem like such a chore.

Those midwestern shrimp appear on the menu more than anything else: in a lightly dressed green papaya salad, delicately sweet, sour, and spicy, with cucumbers and snap peas, and in one of the few larger plates, a kind of rustic bouillabaisse (no saffron, no pastis) featuring clams and two generous pieces of fatty cobia collar that beg to be sucked clean. The heads from these dishes are reserved for the deep fryer, from which they emerge brittle as potato chips, a slightly hazardous, slightly bitter snack, the shattery carapaces softened by a classic, tangy, thick Catalan salbitxada: tomato, sherry vinegar, and garlic sauce thickened with crushed almonds.

The fryer also produces some crispy manchego-and-ham croquettes, one of the few things on the menu that would benefit from more seasoning; they’re also a bit dry, but that’s remedied by the dollop of garlic aioli served to the side. Among the summery, mostly vegetal plates is a basic green salad with pickled carrots, shishito peppers, and an off-the-cob riff on elotes, the kernels sprinkled with smoked paprika. There’s also a bowl of the small, circular Sardinian pasta known as fregola, not unlike Israeli couscous, tossed with julienned strips of tart green peaches, mint, basil, and grated raw sheep’s milk cheese. This section of the menu is entirely married to season right now, and I can’t tell how much that contributes to the breezy, bright feel of the small, white-tiled, underground spot that should feel a lot more claustrophobic than it does. We’ll find out this winter.

The small plates at MFK qualify it as one of the most unaffected tapas bars in the city, free of tired cliches that, due to seasonality and terroir, rarely work on this side of the pond. You’re meant to drink with them from the list of brisk, bright cocktails—not a whiskey drink among them—and the predominantly Old World biodynamic wine list of mostly whites and rosés.

There are a few reds too, and you’ll naturally turn to those when contemplating what I think is the most remarkable dish at MFK and the one most at odds with its sea-centric focus. It’s an 18-ounce steak for two, an uncommon muscle trimmed from the top of the rib-eye roast before it’s carved into steaks. This rib-eye cap is a gnarly looking piece of meat with a counterintuitively buttery texture and a jacket of precious fat that you’d deserve to be jailed for leaving behind. Served medium rare with a shower of sweet onions, it’s what I imagine the young M.F.K. Fisher tasted with her first bite of clandestine steak.

This tiny little restaurant under the street has a lot to live up to, naming itself after Fisher. I can’t say what she’d think, but I’m certain her grandmother would have hated it.