You’ve heard it a thousand times, probably in the background of a jewelry commercial where some rich lady’s self-worth is confirmed by the receipt of a humongous diamond necklace. There’s the string section swell followed by the dusky croon of relief from Etta James that her lovelorn days are finally over. It is an earworm of the first order.
It is also the expression of relief I feel knowing that chef Danny Grant, formerly of North Pond, RIA, and currently also of Maple & Ash has brought a restaurant to the border of Bucktown/Wicker Park (Bucker Park? Wickertown?) named, you guessed it, Etta. I do not know if the restaurant is named after the queen of Muscle Shoals (real name Jamesetta Hawkins), but this idea will do.
Which is to say, while people don’t talk about it much, the story of great food in Chicago is one of real estate. When the rents go up, the quality of food available generally goes down. Where is the “good restaurant” density in Chicago? Old Town, Lincoln Park, Gold Coast? Nope. Nope. Nope.
Yes, Alinea is in Lincoln Park. North Pond is literally in the park. But, these are outliers. Young chefs or creative restauranteurs looking to take chances, follow their voices, and do something interesting, are often strapped for capital, so they chase the reasonable rents, opening in places increasingly farther west, south, and north from downtown.
Wicker Park of course is the new Lincoln Park and as such, purveyors of expensive picnic coolers seem to be the few who can afford the toll. There are also of course exceptions here like Taxim or Hot Chocolate, but the uniquely voiced restaurants are more likely to be found in Logan Square these days.
So, at last, I say, maybe a great restaurant in Wicker Park?
The menu of Etta (technically the “e” is supposed to be lower case here- e.e. cummings would love it) appears to be a potpourri of pandering, a hodgepodge of ladies-who-lunch salads, steakhouse-friendly gargantua beef sides, wood-fired pizzas, and Mediterranean-inspired apps.
The menu copy swaggers like a Jersey Shore cast member (before they had kids and tax evasion problems) promising a cocktail called the Banana Hammock (served with a “big cube”) and the “pig picnic” which according to the description “words can not describe” (they can – overrated).
There is no identity, except maybe that this is a hipster enclave where you go for first date pasta, hangover brunch, or steak when your parents visit. In Etta’s favor, unlike Dutch & Doc’s the execution across this spectrum is more consistent.
The wood-fired pizzas are crackling and blistered. There is no droop or tip sag. The pepperoni is meatier than Mike Ditka’s fingers and spicier than your drunk aunt from Bridgeport.
Were Chicago Rome, the bucatini, a fulsome tangle of gluten joy sprinkled with parmesan and pepper, could be the subject of an episode of popular food TV.
The winter citrus and golden beet salad, a zingy trove of nuts and feta and soil channels an evening at Chez Panisse. You almost hear the farmers whispering to their land and see the cheesemongers coddling their heirloom rennet in each bite. I am clearly a lady who lunches.
But, you will be knocked from your reverie, when the esophagus napalm of chile oil from a dish of “bubbling shrimp” sogged with ginger breaches your throat. The food runner will however arrive with a carafe of water to put out the blaze.
As discussed, the pig picnic, which comes in French-country chic-porn, aka cast iron enamel crockery, is a little overblown. It’s good, but it is just roasted pork shoulder and crispy belly with a lot of charred scallions. The service with its side of lettuce cups, pickles, chimichurri, chili oils, and chili jam, channels, depending on how you roll, a family-style Korean BBQ spread or P.F. Chang’s chicken wrap service. If you have a party of six and everyone gets maybe one wrap, it’s good, but otherwise the $56 price tag is insane. No one craves this much pork unless the pig in question is Nueske’s bacon.
As such, my table of four only eats half the dish. A food runner asks us if we want it boxed up. We say yes, assuming he’ll take the plate. Instead his manager shows up, throws us a couple of takeout containers and forces the task upon us.
The galette pastry is doughy and studded with what tastes like sugar free raspberry jam. The scoop of Earl Grey ice cream on the side has a beautiful perfume of tannic citrus, but it overpowers the muted sweetness of the jelly.
As you contemplate the remains of dessert, you may feel like a zoo animal, for the bar will likely be throbbing three deep, the eyes of the recently soused fixed upon you, waiting for your table to free up. Etta is probably currently the buzziest spot in Chicago.
To avert that hungry gaze, I fix my own eyes on the gigantic vase/arrangement in the middle of room. It is precariously perched on a table with a touch of a lean. I think this was an interior designer’s idea of breaking up the monotony of the room, but I can’t stop worrying that the Canada Goose puffy-coated toddler nearby would brush up against it, knock the whole thing over, and suffocate under its weight.
Dear reader, thankfully, this did not happen.
If you live in the neighborhood, you will be excited about Etta. It is probably the best restaurant in the area. But, the one-eyed man is also king of the land of the blind. If you live in a hood with a lot of great dining choices, you’re probably not returning to Etta very often.
Etta is located at 1840 W. North Ave.