The phrase “neighborhood restaurant” has become something of a pejorative in these times of multimillion-dollar restaurant build-outs, innovative guerrilla pop-ups and clubby small-plates spots. The connotations of a neighborhood restaurant are of a place that is at best classic and unfussy and at worst cheap, unrefined and just uninteresting enough that it could never be a destination. And there are plenty of those kinds of neighborhood restaurants in Chicago. But what I’ve also found is that the restaurants that really get me—where something unique and exciting is going on, where they’re forwarding a new vision of dining and also doing it in a personalized way that satisfies the individual diner—are restaurants that are also often identified as neighborhood restaurants. De Quay, a new Dutch-Indonesian spot in Lakeview, identifies itself as a neighborhood restaurant. I stopped in recently to find out if it would be the kind of mediocre ‘hood spot that repels or the killer kind that thrills Advertisements
There are a lot of things Chicago doesn’t need more of: potholes, corruption, red light cameras and polar vortexes, to name a few. On the dining scene, that list includes taquerias, steakhouses and Italian restaurants—there are arguably plenty to go around. Italian-wise, we’ve got fancified gourmet versions such as Balena, Nico Osteria and Acanto. There are plenty of old-school red sauce joints like Tufano’s, Sabatino’s and La Scarola, and enough Rosebuds to fill the White House Rose Garden. What we don’t have is a red sauce joint running with the aplomb of a modern restaurant group. Until now. The folks behind Balena and The Bristol—John Ross and Phil Walters, aka B Hospitality—along with chef/partner (and former Balena sous chef) Tony Quartaro, have now put down a stake with the opening of Formento’s, their attempt at old-school Italian run with modern sensibility. I stopped in to see if it would be a red sauce revelation or a limp noodle.
You will say that four-star restaurants must be paved in black truffles and lined with microfiber-swaddled, handcrafted chairs. That they must be run by dictatorial artistes pimping 30-course, prix-fixe menus and their monocle-wearing sommelier henchmen who hand sell wine tastings of Alsatian Riesling and beer made by a cloister of nuns. You would be wrong.
Pour my beer in a Solo cup and give me a spit-roasted pork taco and I’m a happy man. It’s not that I don’t appreciate luxury dining, but the balance between food and other details at the high end has increasingly tipped toward silly. Given the current climate, it’s probably only a matter of time before someone offers high colonics in lieu of a post-meal digestif.
I’m no culinary Luddite. In the last year, I’ve eaten and relished bacon ice cream, tortilla foam, Rice Krispies with strawberry Pop Rocks, pineapple sponge, Dover sole with dehydrated banana powder and a chocolate-raspberry-and-foie-gras milkshake.
With all the countless digital photos, food board testimony, blog screeds, and traditional media swoon, I entered Alinea thinking I may have already seen it all, worried that all that was left to do was taste, affirm, and move on to the virtual food movement or whatever Homaro Cantu, Alton Brown, and Bill Nye huddle up and come out with next.