California Knows How to Party

Michael Nagrant / 05.31.18

The King of Spain was not waiting in the bar tonight. But, if he were, I know I would have been seated first. I cannot blame the King of Spain for not yet dining at Pacific Standard Time (PST), the new restaurant from the partnership of One Off Hospitality (Paul Kahan, Donnie Madia, et al.) and Underscore Hospitality (Erling Wu-Bower, Joshua Tilden). Like me, he probably heard the name of the restaurant and shook his head. Which is to say, it feels a little weird to have a restaurant that is an homage to California produce and “California coast soul” (sadly, Marvin Gaye is not involved) named after a Western time zone open in Chicago. I suppose I’m being provincial, but if you opened a restaurant named Central Standard Time in Los Angeles serving Italian beef and tater tot hot dish, Jonathan Gold might just resurrect the LA Times rating system just to award no stars at all. 

But, I also get it. As a proud former-Detroiter, I still do questionable things in the name of regional-nostalgia, like listen to Kid Rock. The irony here is that chef Wu-Bower is a native of South Bend, Indiana, (thank God, they didn’t call the restaurant The Fighting Irish) and the California angle was inspired by the upbringing of his ex-partner Cosmo Goss. Goss, however, failed to report an inappropriate sharing of a personal photo of a female employee by Publican Anker employees, and was let go from One Off Hospitality and Underscore.

This split might also explain why, with Goss’s influence gone, PST doesn’t feel as much like a California restaurant, as it does a new breed of Mediterranean/Asian mash-up (Mediterrasian).

But, before we get to that, you’re probably wondering why I brought up the King of Spain?  Ruth Reichl wrote a legendary 1993 New York Times review of Le Cirque, in which she dined both incognito and also as a recognized guest. She was treated much better as a known quantity, scoring a table, she was told, before the King of Spain who was waiting at the bar.

This is related to my PST visit, because for the first time in 12 years I made a reservation under my own name. This was not intentional. I used a reservation service which I forgot had my real name associated with it (I have five different reservation service accounts under different aliases). When I realized the mistake, PST was already booked up, and if I cancelled, I risked telling my wife that, despite it being part of her Mother’s Day celebration, we would not be eating there. While I take anonymity seriously, I also am no longer bound to let it intrude on my personal life as I once did when I wrote for legacy publications.

So, the PST crew knew I was there. I don’t know if I was treated better than the King of Spain, but I was at least lauded like the Prince of Palatine. The staff kept a respectful watchful distance and sent out a couple dishes compliments of the chefs. I’m telling you this not because I expect to be treated like I’m The Rock when I dine. Rather, I want you to have all the facts when you consider my judgement. I almost didn’t write these last few sentences, because based on the number of infidelity-pursuing pedophilic Republicans, often, when we vehemently declare something, the opposite is true.

You should be more worried about my fanboy appreciation for all things Paul Kahan clouding my judgment anyway. Speaking of Kahan, he walked past my table midway through the meal. Even though PST is clearly Wu-Bower’s show, Kahan’s appearance was kind of a Hitchcockian-cameo, a ghost in the machine reminding you of the greatness you’re about to witness. I did not see Kahan after that, but it would not surprise me if he spent the rest of the night prepping mise en place to help the team for the next day.

Not to keep pimping Kahan, but PST is in some way the full circle realization of Kahan’s dreams. His superchef origin story is that, like some kind of Bukowskian hobo, he hopped a freight car out to California (I’m not making this up), ate at Chez Panisse and fell in love with the seasonal local paradigm of Alice Waters, became a chef and eventually launched Blackbird.

And PST, while not devoutly local, is at its core about serving pristine ingredients at the peak of their ripeness. That might sound like a cliché at this point because now every restaurant says that. But, it’s often bullshit. Many of the very so called best Chicago restaurants are still serving proteins and produce from commodity suppliers and mixing in a few farm things for good measure.

I am reminded of PST’s commitment to great produce when I taste Wu-Bower’s avocado salad. Though I want to punch ubiquitous avocado toast in the face, and by association, squeeze all avocados really hard in their pits, this salad is a masterful mélange of bitter endive, creamy avocado, crisp bracing cucumber and tangy Shabazi-spiked (Shabazi is Yemenite spice paste) sour cream vinaigrette. I crank through this garden of delights like a spliff-smoker munchie-mowing through a sleeve of Cheetos.

The same goes for a seeded toast piled high with strawberries, snap peas, hazelnut and sumac (also, this might be a discarded name for a Simon & Garfunkel tune). The strawberries have the sugary essence of frozen berries, but a citrus whiff of freshly picked ones. The peas crackle. The sumac bursts like lemon.

It’s like eating in 4K HDR. However, if you like things beige, or leopard-spotted, the wood-fired pizzas and pita will fit the bill. But only in color, as they too, with their bubbly cross-sections (Wu-Bower reportedly went through 45+ variations to find his dough recipe) are magnificent.

Chicken wings are basically the meat equivalent of avocado toast these days, ubiquitous. And yet, because they taste 1072 times better than avocado, I forgive everyone serving wings and continue to order them. PST’s are glossy, lacquered in a sugary, fish sauce-spiked crust and so good that, despite having ordered enough food for six people already, I legitimately debated getting another plate. When you are done eating these finger-goo leaving goodies, PST delivers hot towels to cleanse your hands as if you were at the fanciest of Benihanas.

Dungeness crab chitarra is toothsome, tossed with crab and hillbilly truffles, aka ramps.  Black cod is flaky and reminiscent of Hamachi collar, blackened at the edges, smoky and adorned with bright marinated mushrooms, a touch of Jalapeno fire, and the licorice whiff of fennel.

If Wu-Bower is killing it, and he is, his colleague Natalie Saben is the pastry version of Dexter Morgan. Saben is the former sweets-maven of the now defunct 3-star Michelin-rated restaurant Grace. She has not pulled any punches while moving to the more casual confines of PST, which with its walnut and blonde woods and hanging planters looks like a furniture-porn spread from the Room and Board furniture catalog. Her desserts are art installations, sharp meringue barks spiked with basil that melt on your tongue along with huckleberry-drizzled honey ice cream like tabs of magical blotter acid (having never dropped acid, I don’t actually know if this is true, but Michael Pollan could tell you for sure). A dense olive oil pound cake, charred at the edges, acts as a bitter fruity raft for crème fraîche ice cream, lemon curd, and jewel-like supremes of cara cara orange segments.

PST is the best Chicago restaurant opening of 2018, so far. The King of Spain would be wise to dine here before it gets too hot. Although, as far as royals go, it’s more likely Meghan Markle, duchess of Northwestern, and her ginger-haired husband, Harry, are likely to get here sooner. And if they do, I’m happy to relinquish my table.

Pacific Standard Time is located at 141 W. Erie St.. 312.736.1778