Chocolate-covered foie gras tops the menu at the latest from the Fifty/50 Group, Steadfast, a restaurant with a broad mission that in some ways feels like a peak in the trajectory of this concern, which launched with its namesake Wicker Park bro bar and an obscure regional pizzeria but then branched into classy cocktail bars and downtown hotel partnerships that earned the burgeoning empire high regard. Until now the crown jewel has been Homestead on the Roof, the farm-to-table fine-dining outfit atop the Chicago Avenue doughplex that houses the original Roots Handmade Pizza (there’s a second in Lincoln Square) and West Town Bakery. There chef Chris Davies and pastry chef Chris Teixeira labored in relative obscurity—relative, that is, to other, more visible darlings associated in various ways with the Green City Market.
With Steadfast, they’ve been given a more prominent stage in the heart of the Loop at the foot of the Kimpton Gray Hotel, where they serve three squares and maintain an advanced charcuterie program with an assist from Table, Donkey and Stick‘s Scott Manley, along with a bar filled with clever cocktails and antique whiskeys under the direction of Tomasz Sas, a protege of group MVP Benjamin Schiller.
What’s most interesting to me about Steadfast is that Texeira, the beneficiary of a great deal of critical acclaim in the past, is given practically equal billing to Davies on the restaurant’s PR boilerplate and its menu. Thus the sweet foie bonbon that introduces things: a mouthful of creamy, rich, livery torchon, jacketed in a dark chocolate shell with a few squibs of orange puree and, to cement its place on the savory menu, a sprinkle of sea salt. It’s a deliciously weird way to start a session at Steadfast, and isn’t the first indicator of the pastry chef’s outsize influence on dinner. That’s apparent also among the snacks that lead off with the laminated brioche, a chimeric cylinder of layered dough rolled thin, concealing deposits of Spanish ham and manchego cheese, all topped with a quail egg, caviar, and gold leaf. It’s a crispy, warm reminder of Texeira’s doughssant, West Town Bakery’s answer to the cronut.
But the pastry chef asserts himself most with the bread service, the most elaborate version of which includes a half-dozen fist-size breads, from a lavender-scented pretzel to a leek-crusted flamiche to a garlicky cracker, all accompanied by pickles, oils, and three luxuriantly soft butters. Pace yourself with this bread. Don’t scarf down all $11 worth immediately; reserve some to help with Davies’s more saucy dishes, not the least of which includes a peppery espelette mayo and a sweet onion marmalade that both outshine the accompanying trio of dense, dry-smoked oxtail croquettes. The bread also comes in handy when approaching the thick, salty, and unsubtle smoked red gravy that passes for broth in a cioppino nonetheless brimming with perfectly cooked scallops, lobster, clams, and mussels, as well as the bizarrely liquid duck-liver mousse studded with Armagnac-poached prunes that accompanies what should be a showstopping whole roasted lavender-honey-glazed duck, which in at least one unfortunate case turned out to be overcooked.
There’s a lot to puzzle over on Steadfast’s dinner menu. Dishes so irresistible you want to order them again are side by side with some so unappealing they’re difficult to look at.
There should be no complaints about the fried chicken skins, drizzled in a sweet sriracha and sprinkled with mustard seeds. Likewise for the chicken-fried quail, sweetly glazed in a lemongrass-infused caramel. (Incidentally, there seems to be a bit of a fried-chicken theme; Manley’s fatty, funky coppa is served sprinkled with crushed chicken skin.) And there shouldn’t have been any worries about the fideo, a sort of inverted ring-molded angel-hair kugel on a bed of rich and rewarding inky squidlings marinated in black garlic; or with the sweetbreads, a judicious portion of lightly smoked glands arrayed on a mess of green pea puree and carpet bombed with umami-loaded garnishes like truffles, charred asparagus tips, pickled dates, and chorizo. (Alas, two of the better dishes on the menu have since been 86’d.)
But then certain promising-looking dishes go off the rails: uncharacteristically moist cider-braised rabbit surrounded by tough, rubbery shrimp balls; an otherwise textbook chorizo-stuffed chicken ballotine garnished with tasteless black truffles surrounding a mound of glutinous, gray freekeh porridge. Considering the disastrous aspects of the aforementioned cioppino and duck, it’s safe to say that this ambitious-looking menu is presently harboring land mines.
Teixeira’s desserts, on the other hand, are a uniform delight: an arrangement of chocolatey stout cake, butterscotch ice cream, and crunchy caramel pretzel; or a dish of honey ice cream, sage pound cake, and a dollop of bee-pollen-infused whipped cream.
A small tray of Teixeira’s sweets—macarons, nougats, truffles, and pate de fruits—finishes things off, reinforcing the fine-dining MO the principals are striving for, the same ones that certain aspects of the hotel’s environment tend to undermine: an unlovely view onto relatively lonely Monroe Street, a set of single-occupancy restrooms requiring a trip through the lobby and up some stairs, air-conditioning gone AWOL on one of the warmest evenings of the summer, and service seemingly out of sync with the kitchen (one evening a server repeatedly rushed over late to breathlessly introduce half-eaten dishes, waving her fingers perilously close to the food).
Steadfast still feels like it’s getting its footing while attempting to appease both a broad hotel clientele and the local dining fans who justifiably expect something more on point from this cast of characters. v