Sky Full of Bacon

Chaise Lounge: Tomorrow’s Hot Chef In Today’s Hot Nightclub

I first became aware of Chaise Lounge when Carl Galvan suggested including it in my sustainable fish podcast, as he had recently helped chef Cary Taylor move to almost all sustainable fish.  If I’d heard of it at that point I’d filed it in my head as a Wicker Park bar/nightclub, not the kind of place I especially care about unless something extraordinary is happening there, as at The Violet Hour, say.

I met Cary as well as owner Jim Lasky, and interviewed Cary for about an hour.  He seemed a nice, eager young chef; he’d worked at Blackbird and Avenues, and seemed to be taking an intelligently realistic approach to upgrading the food at a place with enough glitz and swanky pseudo-Miami atmosphere that it could just get by on drinks and vaguely island-y, mediocre supper club food.  Recognizing that his place wasn’t exactly a chef-driven restaurant, he was still trying to find ways to use the kinds of natural suppliers that his neighbors like Mado and The Bristol use and turn out food that could hold its head up in their company.

I admired this, and thought it was both to his and to Lasky’s credit that they were trying to offer first-class food in a place where they really didn’t have to… but I have to admit it didn’t quite nudge Chaise Lounge to the top of my fine-dining must-try list until some rave posts at LTHForum by Kennyz, who said “Chaise Lounge does a better job with fish than any place I can think of at a similar price point in Chicago.”  Intrigued by this— since it was swimming against the current of Chicago’s, and my own, rampant porkophilia at the moment— I picked it for my birthday dinner last Friday.

I loved the pork dish.

I don’t mean that to slight the fish dishes at all.  We didn’t try as extensively of the fish dishes as I expected, but the things we did have were generally very good.  Scallops are the new salmon, in terms of being ubiquitous and a bit boring, but these had more flavor than most, were cooked flawlessly, and the stuff they swam in— mainly a schmear of sweet beet puree— was bright and imaginative; in every way it was a cut above most of the scallop dishes I’ve had lately.  A smoked trout brandade was comfy enough to crawl into and pull the crock’s lid behind you; while a special of lobster pot pie showed that Taylor can do comfy and complex and cooked to perfection all at once, big hunks of lobster in a warm and savory gravy of root vegetables like sunchokes.  (Though he talked with us beforehand about the one conceptual/logistical problem with a lobster pot pie– how to do an upper crust without cooking the lobster to rubber.  The solution— a thick disc of pastry baked separately and plopped on at the end— is inelegant but, it seems, a small price to pay for the lobster being cooked superbly.)

Oh, but the black-eyed pea cassoulet, with housemade garlic sausage and duck… that’s what I spent the next day dreaming about.  You know how on the last season of Top Chef, the Voltaggio brothers would impress you with highly imaginative, conceptual platings, and then Kevin would win because his just tasted so damn good?  This was a Kevin dish, reflective of Taylor’s Southern background but with complexity that comes from classic French cookery.  (Even though it’s somewhat hidden on the menu, Taylor takes his Southern heritage seriously, and we got into a discussion of the classic Junior League cookbook Charleston Receipts at one point; a relative of his was one of the authors.)

I didn’t have a lot of expectations for dessert, since he told us beforehand that he is his own pastry chef and he kind of lets his staff play around and come up with ideas for that part of the menu.  But if the process he described sounded a bit lackadaisical, you’d never have thought that from the desserts themselves, which (like the scallop, actually) rose above the good enough with intelligent choices of accent flavors on the plate which suggested greater sophistication, like little bits of bourbon gelee around an apple crisp.  An almond cake (not one of my favorite flavors) was one of the best parts of the meal, beautifully balanced for a flavor that can be cloying.

Chaise Lounge, and the fact that it has a first-rate chef, are not unknown; Phil Vettel recently gave it three stars in the Tribune, in fact he reviewed it before he ever got to Mado, which perhaps says something about his being drawn to what he reviews by the scene more than the cuisine.  But it may still be a bit underappreciated, not least by the raucous crowds attracted by its lively nightclub atmosphere, and it belongs on the foodie radar like any other place run by a Blackbird alum with a keen sense of how to get deep flavor out of top quality ingredients in a simple, unfussy way.  In other words, don’t hate Chaise Lounge because it’s beautiful; inside this raucously lively nightclub, there’s a serious restaurant getting down.

Chaise Lounge
1840 W. North Ave.

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