Sky Full of Bacon

Kith & Kin: It’s Not You, It’s Me

So some years ago, a guy who had experience under one of the most respected chefs in town went out on his own and opened a comfort food restaurant, which I have expressed love for on many occasions.  It was in an unpretentious suburb (Burbank), had his name and a picture of a pig on its sign, and in general, it looked and felt like exactly the place in which you expect to get comfort food like chicken-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, sage gravy, and green beans with bacon bits for about $8.99.

Even if Chuck Pine occasionally shows his Bayless background by making artisanal-Mexican hybrid dishes like Mexican Pot Roast, he’s firmly within what we would call The Comfort Food Paradigm, which is to say, unpretentious, a little affectation of down hominess and honky tonk good times, easy to like flavors, modest prices— in short, nothing that Grandma wouldn’t recognize as food.

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So two guys who had experience under some of the most respected chefs in the world, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz to be specific, now turn up in a sleekly modern yet welcoming space in Lincoln Park, Kith & Kin.  And they start serving comfort food in something of a fine dining atmosphere, sometimes with French words or the names of pork breeds on the menu (though in general it’s very light on the ingredient-genealogy thing).  In some ways they’re fitting The Comfort Food Paradigm, in some ways they’re breaking it wide open.  A lot of people are loving it.

Me… some of it impressed me, some of it left me thinking, is that it?  Is comfort food enough when you’re performing on this stage, or should we expect more?  Does the mere fact of being in this fine dining atmosphere, in this neighborhood and with these resumes, oblige you to play at the more elaborate games of teasing and subverting expectations and expanding minds that seem to be de rigeur for fine dining these days?  Can you look like The Hot New Chicago Restaurant Paradigm and serve food like The Comfort Food Paradigm at the same time?

Or am I just asking questions that no else wants the answers to?

Before you answer that, let me walk through a couple of dishes.  One that’s received a lot of acclaim is the fried confit chicken thighs, and this is a good example of how a deceptively simple dish— fried chicken, dumplings, gravy— can have a lot of technique and work behind it which produce incrementally more wonderful results.  Doing chicken as confit produced dark meat that had reduced halfway to a jerky texture in some ways, yet still had the juiciness and crispiness of fried chicken, set off simultaneously by salty gravy and skin, the fluffy blandness of dumplings, and the bitterness of some brussels sprouts.  The technique and balance of this dish were impeccable, redefining the very idea of chicken and dumplings as a dish.

But if you’re redefining dishes, are you still in a comfort food zone?  At the very least, you’re pushing it to the edge of comfort, but with great success in this case.  At the same time, though, my wife had short ribs in a traditional veal stock-wine braise.  A classic dish, executed very well… and exactly as any nice French restaurant might make it, or would have made it in 1920, or indeed, as I’ve made it at home.  You got a problem with that?  Not exactly, but if I’m again expecting something as revelatory as the fried chicken thighs, I’m left waiting for the punchline.

Or is that just me?  Maybe.  But that’s how I felt about the meal— constantly wondering, should I just be happy to be comforted, or do I want my comfort nudged to the next level?  A salad was another good example— pecans and blue cheese and some poached pears could be in a salad anywhere, there’s one not entirely unlike it at California Pizza Kitchen, but not many places would use lightly grilled escarole, softening its texture and sharpening its taste; a wonderfully simple but refined touch.  But hardly safe or expected, if that’s supposed to go with the comfort territory.

On the other hand the pork “crock,” a spreadable pork pate, was pleasant enough (we ate it all) but it hardly seemed memorable as pate goes; here’s where Kith & Kin seemed timid next to the Mados and Bristols and Purple Pigs.  (The LTHer who damned it as being like Underwood deviled ham wasn’t being that cruel.)  Likewise, one dessert pulled off the highwire act with great success despite an executional error— an olive oil cake, served a little hard and cold, but beautifully balanced with a lush orange-vanilla ice cream; the other played it safe (fresh churros with a chocolate ganache to dip in) and was appropriately choco-decadent, but no more.  Again, the one that tickled the mind, too, made the one that merely pleased the belly look a little small.

It could be that Kith & Kin is exactly what it wants to be— sometimes ingeniously innovative, often simply a nicer version of Stanley’s Kitchen & Tap.  An audience for what it is has clearly found it, and so maybe everyone will just live happily ever after and not every meal has to be overthought like I’m doing right now.  But I liked the Kith & Kin that pushed my comfort zone so much more than the one that comforted me and no more, that I think it’s almost a shame if you have that ability and don’t use it to the fullest.  Enjoy your success, Kith & Kin— but don’t get comfortable.

Kith & Kin
1119 West Webster
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 472-7070

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