Ranch dressing as we know it was invented by a Nebraska-born African-American cowboy working as a plumbing contractor in Alaska. It’s true. Steve Henson whipped up the concoction of buttermilk, mayo, sour cream, parsley, onion, garlic, and salt and pepper to feed his crew of hungry workers in the early 50s. Eventually, though, Henson and his wife, Gayle, moved to Santa Barbara and opened Hidden Valley Ranch, where the dressing grew so popular among their guests they began to bottle it and send it home with them.
Today ranch dressing abuse is committed all over the country in everything from soda to Corn Nuts to Cheetos. The practice of dipping crappy pizza into cool, creamy garlic glue seems so uniquely midwestern it’s hard to believe that ranch was originally a product of the Golden State’s unparalleled agricultural bounty. And yet ranch is having a huge moment in the chef world too, giving yolk porn a run for its money among the nation’s Instagram influencers.
Ranch comes in a tiny ramekin along with your pizza at Pacific Standard Time, the obsessively anticipated new River North restaurant from the fledgling Underscore Hospitality, with a major assist from Paul Kahan and company’s One Off Hospitality. Chef Erling Wu-Bower is a veteran of that august group, having spent much of his formative career clocking shifts at Avec, the Publican, PQM, and Nico Osteria (Bower was meant to have been joined by former Publican chef Cosmo Goss before the latter stepped away in the wake of Chicago’s first restaurant #MeToo moment).
The idea behind PST is a celebration of the California culinary lifestyle, though I couldn’t decide whether the ranch was intended to ironically channel coastal disdain or sincerely pander to a midwestern audience. According to Bower it’s neither: “It’s a nod toward shamelessness,” he told me.
Whatever the case, the ranch is wholly unnecessary, because the pies all by themselves are very nice, belched from one of two looming dome-shaped wood-burning ovens. These are prominently positioned in the open kitchen at the rear of this massive cream-colored and teak-stained room, so filled with the din of shouting diners that Norwegian death metal could be playing on the soundtrack and it would still sound like a faint faraway echo under all the noise. (Servers—and Bower—promise that acoustic remediation is coming.)
The pizzas are thin and flat, with high cheese-encrusted corniciones, and possessed of a superelasticity that might come at some expense to the bread’s bubble structure and yeasty ferment. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed a pie adorned with ramps and tangy tomato, punchy ubriaco rosso cheese, and house-cured coppa. This being a California-themed enterprise, all three of the pies can be had with a gluten-free crust instead, and while there was nothing on the menu at PST I wanted to eat less than a gluten-free pizza, I am so hopelessly devoted to you, reader, that I took one for the team. Happily, it too was quite good considering the crust’s made from rice and corn flour. Thin and flat with nary a raised edge, it still takes on a tasty blackened form during its brief time in the oven and is nicely chewy if thoroughly soft. This with an application of roasted mushrooms, cippolini onion, stracchino cheese, and a powerfully umamic deposit of XO sauce (made from ham, dried scallops, and shrimp) makes a perfectly acceptable pie under the circumstances.
Four pastas can be made to suit the gluten averse as well, though I avoided those, sticking to the conventional semolina-based and rather large-bore chittara, somewhat too squishy noodles tangling among a pancetta-boosted tomato sauce thick with shredded Dungeness crab and chopped ramp greens. Ricotta dumplings look disturbingly like a collection of exfiltrated testicles—but they’re great. It’s rare to encounter an Italian filled pasta with such a delicate wrapper, and these are paired simply with fresh green peas and wilted spinach in a Parmesan rind-infused brodo.
But back to those ovens, which play a crucial role across the menu, most notably in the fresh-baked pita bread, the sort of thing that inspired envy among chefs and professional eaters across the country when the great New Orleans Israeli restaurant Shaya started cranking them out to order from its own wood-burning oven in early 2015.
Here circles of hand-formed dough are fed into a 650-degree (or so) inferno where their internal steam inflates them like balloons in a matter of a minute, after which another minute gives them a fetching stippled char. There are foods to swipe these through: escabeche ahi tuna with hummus and mint, or roasted eggplant and peppers with melted robiola cheese, or beef tartare, delicious with anchovy mayo and slivered radish, but you might be tempted just to tear them into pieces and eat them on their own in a fervor for their toasty-fresh, lightly oiled and salted sorcery. One can even order a whole roasted duck in a ceramic roasting pan covered with a layer of this hot flatbread. But really these all seem sort of superfluous. If PST was just Bower and a stand on a street corner and this pita was all he produced, I’d call it an American success story.
The ovens are used to blacken the crust on a ruddy skirt steak sliced and fanned so that its ruby interior is set against pale-green sweet-pea puree and hot, oily salsa macha. But they also can be graceful, used to put the merest kiss of heat on asparagus so fresh and tender you could eat it raw, tossed with Fresno chiles, basil, cilantro, tangy sambal vinaigrette, and peanut aioli.
Without writing a book on the subject, I can’t say exactly how one should define California cuisine. But in an essay penned for the Washington Post (an extraordinary publicity coup), Bower writes this: “The best description of California cuisine that I have heard comes from chef Stuart Brioza [owner of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and the Progress]. ‘The California diner expects a level of intercultural conversation in their food.'”
And that’s why certain dishes—a good number of them, in fact—draw upon various Asian cuisines. There’s the aforementioned asparagus; fat chicken wings in a thick, sticky glaze with a soul-gripping saline bottom from fish sauce and warm, glowing sweetness from caramelized sugar; and a stone bowl containing a daunting lump of fork-tender pork shoulder that shares space with soft cubes of tofu and chewy clams, all in a depthless braising liquid.
And yet, just as often PST puts out a straightforward expression of the pristine, resolutely seasonal midwest: new English peas with a dense burrata and just overcooked farro are blanched just right to preserve their plump, green essence without shriveling their shells. Or by now ubiquitous asparagus simply scattered alongside a near-raw piece of Creamsicle-colored trout with a delicate crust of toasted ground rice and cashews, thin as a chip, that I watched a lost soul sitting at the table next to me scrape from the fish one evening (this has been replaced by a larger shareable dish of oven-roasted trout).
While PST certainly follows a Californian aesthetic of seasonality, for now it’s not quite that local. Some extraordinarily sweet and fulsome California strawberries appear on a starter salad with snap peas, sumac, and stracciatella, but pastry chef Natalie Saben has got ahold of them too, and macerates the intensely floral berries, setting them up against chartreuse sorbet, oxalis, and a delicate “sunflower cotton cake” textured somewhere between cotton candy and angel food. The huckleberry sundae is equally memorable—clean, rich fruit ice cream with a scoop of honey ice cream alongside, topped with shards of meltaway meringue and thin slivers of buttermilk cake that stand upright like the fins on a stegosaurus.
Not surprisingly, a great portion of the wine list comes from the west coast, California in particular, but in the end there’s surprisingly little about PST that is truly Californian, and a lot that’s reflective of a midwestern fantasy of what California could be if only it were located in Illinois—open space, clean lines, fresh vegetables year-round. Plus, you don’t even have to ask for ranch dressing with your pizza. v