Of the many disguises I wear to work, my favorite is the disoriented foreign tourist: I walk into a new restaurant clutching the Lonely Planet Chicago and in a vaguely eastern European accent ask if they serve “the deep dish.” Most hosts are sympathetic when telling me no, and I allow myself to be talked into a table or a seat at the bar to hear the highlights of the menu. If they laugh at me that says a lot too.
That’s the fun part of the job. Sitting down to write about the experience is the excruciating part, particularly when a restaurant doesn’t have a strong identity of its own.
“Farm cuisine, modern cooking” is the motto at Storefront Company, a two-and-a-half month old inhabitant of Wicker Park’s Flat Iron Arts Building from the owners of the Debonair Social Club, also in the Flat Iron. The motto doesn’t do any favors for Bryan Moscatello, the chef recruited from D.C. who won a 2003 Best New Chef nod from Food & Wine but doesn’t have a track record in these parts.
Listing your farmers on your menu doesn’t set you apart these days. And what exactly is “modern cuisine” anyway? On Moscatello’s menu, the dish listed way down at the end of the menu is titled “The Whole Hog.” It’s a tasting of four two-bite preparations, beginning at far left with a piece of liver crusted in corn flakes and fried to bitter rubber, followed by two perfect squares of silky loin posed on a slice of Japanese eggplant, then a finger of breakfast sausage, and finally a crepe folded around some shredded rib meat and unidentifiable offal. It’s an inharmonious set of hors d’oeuvres at $28 that probably belongs on the menu’s first section of shareable bites, and it says just as little about this chef’s “modern farm cooking cuisine” as anything else.
Among these starters are foie gras bombes that crown sweet, caramelized onions and luscious ribbons of cured salmon on smudges of sweet fennel jam, each perched atop some dry, seemingly stale brioche circles. They’re tasty canapes for sure—the sort of thing chefs put out at charity events as calling cards. You pluck them from small paper plates, pop them in your mouth, and quickly forget them when you move onto the next station.
These two dishes hint at a recurring stylistic theme: there’s a lot of stacking going on, particularly with cylindrically shaped food. A jiggly sous-vide egg wobbles atop a disc of pork cheek that’s diced rather than hashed, conjuring images of cat food upended from the can. A plank of compressed monkfish bits (cooked too dry) lies across another disk of oxtail fried rice that’s nonetheless delicious on its own, commingled with bits of caramelized pan-fried beef. Cross sections of boned and reformed quail meat are offset by orange slices and smooth polenta that mitigate an aggressive saltiness. A pair of duck confit coins lurk at the bottom of a bowl of winning “cassoulet bisque,” essentially a pureed bean soup that reminded me so much of gravy that I soaked two slices of bread in it and pretended it was Thanksgiving leftovers.
I still don’t know what it says that the most distinctive thing I can nail down about Moscatello’s cooking is his predilection for manipulating meat into circles—that’s between him and Hermann Rorschach. But there are some good dishes that don’t take this approach; simple, medium-rare slices of beef loin drizzled with a marrow emulsion and accompanied by root vegetables cooked in duck fat, an heirloom carrot salad with milky fresh clouds of ricotta, and a soupy bowl of cauliflower-stuffed tortelloni, the vegetable’s natural sweetness amped by sherry, cream, and aged Gouda shavings.
The folks at Storefront take the unusual step of listing composed cheese plates on both the dinner and dessert menus, and the front of the house pushes these as both potential starters and final courses. These feature a single fine cheese with complementary garnishes, say, a stinky, deliquescing smear of Epoisses with shards of lavash and grapes steeped in Chablis, or crumbles of a powerful blue with a scoop of apple sorbet topped with a crisp, flattened swirl of pancetta—a composition more harmonious than the sum of its mutually assertive parts. It’s easy to focus on these, if only for the push they’re given, but that’s at the expense of the desserts, namely a plank of dense parsnip cake with cream cheese ice cream. It’s the best carrot cake riff I’ve come across in a while.
There are similar sparks of personality here and there—a Scotch-based cocktail served with shortbread cookies, mini Himalayan-salt-encrusted butter ziggurats with the bread service, a takeaway bag of moist chocolate-coconut crackles. And the room itself is a bright, open, comfortable space, with kitchen herbs flourishing in the window. Those are the sort of touches that accessorize a memorable, convincing character, but on their own they can’t define one.