Put two strong, seemingly disparate identities together and you either achieve great triumph (Lennon & McCartney, Pippen & Jordan) or spectacular failure (“crystal” and Pepsi, Dusty Baker and the Cubs). Al Dente, a new, semi-upscale, Mex-Italian restaurant in Old Irving Park from Spiaggia and MK veteran Javier Perez, is mostly glorious.
Perez is the James Brown of the kitchen, which is to say he might just be the hardest-working dude in chow business. He started as a dishwasher under President Obama’s favorite cook-in-chief, Tony Mantuano, at Tuttaposto in 1990. By 2009, he’d worked his way up to sous chef at Cibo Matto in the Wit Hotel. Somewhere in between he was working days helping open the Paramount Room and filling nights at Spiaggia.
You could forgive the man if, after 21 years, he’d sit at the kitchen pass adjusting sprigs of rosemary or rearranging leaning towers of beef in crisp chef’s whites. But at Al Dente, every time the kitchen door swings open, I see Perez sweating over the grill.
And maybe that is why in this lazy celebrity chef culture, where big Chicago chefs open in Vegas and bigger New York chefs carpetbag with mediocre afterthought restaurants in Chicago, every protein at Al Dente is cooked perfectly.
Lamb chops, perched on a hill of mineral-kissed wilted spinach, are medium-rare lollipops of succulent-to-the-bone, rich flesh dripping with nutty, rusty-orange romesco sauce. The chops are accompanied by luscious braised lamb wrapped in crunchy, green chile crema-drizzled flautas that weep puffs of corn perfume with every bite.
A nest of wild boar meat, tender as the lamb, is coddled by a circular wall of cloud-like potato gnocchi glazed in truffle sauce and dusted with wisps of sarvecchio Parmesan.
The shrimp in the queso fundido are plump, briny, bursting sea jewels, swimming in an oozy current of Chihuahua cheese. The cheese is so pliant you cold send your date across the room with a strand in her teeth and re-enact the “Lady and the Tramp” noodle scene to Guinness World Record proportions. Unfortunately, neither of you would be rewarded with the spicy chunks of cumin-wafting chorizo if the kitchen forgets to include them as they do on our portion.
But you can forgive such things over a fireplace dish like Al Dente’s butternut squash soup. A fireplace dish is the kind of plate that literally warms the body and massages the brain, something so comforting on a cold Chicago winter night. Perez’s soup is smooth and creamy and suffuse with spice. A mound of spaghetti squash garnish acts as a mock noodle reinforcing the earthy squash flavor.
All that richness requires a foil, and maybe none is better than a shaved fennel salad tossed with mustard vinaigrette, blue cheese and candied walnuts. The salad could use a touch more blue cheese to offset the acid in the vinaigrette, but Perez’s use of farm greens and crisp hunks of cucumber along with the fennel breaks up the usual herbal monotony I loathe.
Dessert is mostly from outside vendors, but the honey peanut tart featuring peanut butter cream, chocolate glaze and honey Bavarian mousse would satisfy even the snootiest tall-toqued patissier no matter its provenance.
If there is any problem with our overall experience, it’s that our server mumbles like the adults in Peanuts cartoons. But he’s empathetic and his execution is nimble.
The room, painted an avocado green and filled with plush banquettes is comfy enough. Still, featuring a low drop ceiling and a hard concrete floor, it is unavoidably a Chicago storefront. Then again, concrete floors haven’t hurt Irving Park’s primary claim to world-class dining, Smoque BBQ, located around the corner. Al Dente should be fine, too.
AL DENTE ★★½
3939 W. Irving Park;
(773) 942-7771; aldentechicago.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.