In the past year or so, we’ve seen a number of legitimate chefs apply their talents to the American steakhouse, and the results have been better than we might have hoped (had we known that chef-driven steakhouses were about to become a thing).
First there was Doug Psaltis, creating magic with RPM Steak. The Dineamic Hospitality Group followed with Prime & Provisions, and Joey Beato drew steak lovers to Community Tavern in Portage Park. Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, Boeufhaus — Chicago was looking very boeuf indeed.
And now we have Swift & Sons, born of the Boka Group (Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster, Momotaro and so on) in partnership with B. Hospitality Co. (Balena, The Bristol, Formento’s) and determined to put yet another personal-yet-respectful imprint on this classic restaurant genre.
Indeed, the restaurant planned its name (originally it was to be Armour & Swift) to honor two great Chicago meatpackers of yore, but the folks holding the Armour trademark objected to the name being associated with the restaurant.
They should be so lucky. Swift & Sons’ kitchen team features chef Chris Pandel (Balena, The Bristol) and pastry chef Meg Galus (Boka, Momotaro), and that’s a helluva one-two punch for any restaurant. Add a terrific wine list by Marcello Cancelli (600 bottles and a Coravin-enabled list of premium glass pours), appealing visuals throughout the bilevel loft space and the sort of top-flight service that has become a Boka Group signature, and you have an irresistible combination.
The restaurant’s savory, pastry and service elements come together in one superb dish, and that’s the beef Wellington. Sized for two, this classic wraps 12 ounces of medium-rare tenderloin in foie gras, mushroom duxelles and spinach, all encased in a magnificent, golden pastry shell. Served on a thick cutting board, sliced and served tableside, this is the kind of presentation and ritual that makes guests at nearby tables rethink their choices. I’ve never had a better version of this dish.
Of course, Swift & Sons has no shortage of prime beef on offer. There’s a $65, 22-ounce rib-eye that will curl your toes, and a fine 16-ounce New York strip. Wagyu beef is available, sourced from Australia and Chile, though the deep-pocketed can choose the $100 A5 wagyu strip loin from Japan. The surf-and-turf matches a hefty lobster to a half-pound cap steak, a cut that has been gaining a lot of fans in the past couple of years.
There are some very good non-steak main courses, notably a pair of well-trimmed, full-flavored lamb chops, resting against a roulade of lamb saddle and lamb sausage, the latter fragrant with orange and nutmeg. Skuna Bay salmon arrives on a raft of roasted beets, around which is decanted a borscht-like beet broth.
Side dishes stretch beyond double-baked predictability to include well-seasoned roasted fingerlings with a dill-accented lemon creme fraiche (the overall effect not unlike an everything bagel), potato tartiflette (a gratin of potatoes, caramelized onions, country ham and taleggio cheese) and a rainbow of roasted cauliflower.
Appetizers include steakhouse classics, imaginatively considered. Centered in the steak tartare is a vivid-yellow egg custard, ringed with lightly pickled mustard seeds; crabcake arrives with a crisped-potato crust, on a bed of celery-root remoulade surrounded by piquant Creole sauce. Pandel’s lobster bisque occupies a textural zone straddling unctuous creaminess and flavor-rich bouillon.
Unexpected treats include ricotta dumplings with kuri squash, and a very nice butcher’s salad of roast beef, mustard greens and a light ravigote dressing. And of course there are seafood towers, hot and cold, and in a considerate touch, they’re priced per person, so the budget commitment isn’t too onerous. (At some places, I can order a seafood tower only if I intend to eat nothing else.) The hot platter, with its shrimp-mousse-stuffed langoustine and espelette-topped oysters, is particularly good.
Meg Galus might be the best pastry chef working in Chicago today. Already running the pastry programs at Boka and Momotaro, she creates desserts for Swift & Sons that stay within the steakhouse framework and still manage to be unique. Her Boston cream pie is a clever deconstruction that flanks cream-topped spongecake rectangles with shards of tempered chocolate; the S & S Cracker Jack (inspired, she says, by Dairy Queen’s Peanut Buster Parfait) features peanut butter mousse, salted caramel, caramel corn and a scoop of popcorn-infused sherbet. The straightforward lemon zest creme brulee benefits from a very pretty presentation, the crust topped with an arc of pistachio crisps and ginger-white-chocolate Chantilly cream.
A recently opened adjunct to Swift & Sons is Cold Storage, a 60-seat space (open for dinner daily, lunch Monday-Friday) with an emphasis on shellfish and interesting seafood sandwiches (the shrimp banh mi is very good), though the item I liked most was an appetizer of charred turnips in bagna cauda, alongside a soft-boiled egg topped with trout roe (a cute egg-on-egg presentation with bitter and umami flavors). Galus’ Cold Storage desserts are more in the classic soda-fountain vein (shakes, splits, sundaes), including an eight-scoop narwhal sundae.
“It’s selling more often than we thought,” Galus says. “The smallest (party) to take one down has been three.”
Phil Vettel is a Tribune critic.
Swift & Sons
1000 W. Fulton Market
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner daily
Prices: Entrees $29-$105
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Ratings key: 4 stars, outstanding; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, very good; 1 star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.
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