Lucky Strikes

Michael Nagrant / 03.20.10

God help you if Dale Levitski sat next to you at a blackjack table in Vegas during the past few years of his career. In 2001, he opened the first Orange, the whimsical local breakfast chain, to much acclaim—and then left with a restraining order against him. He was the heir apparent at Evanston’s celebrated Trio—and then it closed under his tenure. He blazed through season three of Top Chef, but lost on the last episode. Then he disappeared, waiting tables and trying to get a mega-million-dollar dream restaurant off the ground, while accruing $4,000-plus in unpaid rent on his apartment. Lady Luck had left him in the dust.

This string of drama led many people (myself included) to consider that—unless he was on the longest episode ever of Punk’d—maybe the problem was Dale Levitski himself. So when my friend called and asked if I wanted to check out Sprout, Levitski’s culinary resurrection in Lincoln Park, you’d think I’d say I had another place to review. But, I’m a sucker for reality television catastrophe. Meaning: I ran to 1417 W. Fullerton about as fast as Mike “the Situation” Sorrentino does when he spots a gaggle of tan guidettes dancing at a Jersey Shore club. If things went well, I’d time my arrival just as Levitski was throwing hot frying pans at his sous chef and screaming, “I hate you all! I’m not here to make friends!”

Instead, I roll up to a peaceful, shadowy, candlelit grotto that simultaneously channels the entrance to a wine cave and the last place Shaggy and Scooby Doowere spotted before zombies grabbed them. Inside, candlelight shimmers off the coppery sheets flanking the looming wooden back bar, causing the hammered, swirled patina to look like a pair of metallic waterfalls. The whole effect would be reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie if not for the cheesy glass teardrop sconces and utilitarian stone tile that looks like it came straight from Home Depot. (I’ve since been told that Levitski is redecorating the space.)

Still, the red tufted banquettes swallow me up in a velvety cocoon, and after a while, the soft light casts a cloaking anonymity. Sprout feels like the perfect spot to bring a mistress. Maybe that’s why middle-aged divorcées on first dates always seem to flank my table during visits. Just make sure to order her a cocktail, not wine. The vino list offers little value,with many markups more than 300%. (A source at the restaurant says that since my visit, a new manager has overhauled the wine program to fix this.) My lemony Collins, on the other hand, featuring a frothy layer of whipped egg white, is well balanced. So is a blood-orange-tinged Manhattan.

Our server approaches, flashing a huge grin and rubbing his hands together as though plotting to take over the world in a cartoon. He informs us that though à la carte items are available, the restaurant is set up to serve diners a three-course prix fixe. You can select an appetizer, entrée and dessert, and also get two intermezzo courses chosen by the chef, for $60.

“Think of it as a Choose Your Own Adventure dinner experience,” he says.

The problem is that whenever I read those books as a kid, I couldn’t choose just one path. I’d go back and redo every choice until I’d exhausted all the adventures, just to see where they led. Likewise, Levitski’s dishes, heavy on luxury ingredients (truffles, foie) and unlikely flavor combos (licorice and peppermint) are all really appealing. I want to order everything.

So, while I succumb to the prix fixe, we make sure to add quite a few extra courses. I usually avoid salads to save room for more substantial courses, but the velvety texture of Purple Haze goat cheese, mixed bitter lettuces and silky sweet pears dusted with a snow of tableside-grated licorice root is so interesting that I can’t ignore it. My next dish, braised rabbit pierogies swimming in a floral chamomile broth that’s studded with hazelnuts and roasted beets, is a dance of smoky and sweet that’s on par with my own Polish grandmother’s dumplings.

Even when things go wrong, like in an undersalted plank of Wagyu beef or a pink peppercorn poundcake that’s a touch too dry, it’s never a failure of concept…just a slight miscue in execution. On another night, the poundcake has been replaced by buttery peppercornlaced shortbread, the crunchy texture a better foil for the accompanying lemon curd, airy dollops of goat cheese, sour cherries and cilantro sauce.

As my fork scoops up a cloud of whipped foie gras mousse—lightened by the citrusy brightness of quince covered crostini and fortified with salty notes of cashew and haunting burnt-orange bursts of sherry—Levitski strides through the dining room, adding electricity to the otherwise staid confines. He’s gracious with diners, less a reality TV contestant obsessed with celebrity and more like your humble best bud.

That’s a good thing, for a touch of grounding will serve him well if Sprout’s the venture that lifts him up again. After a few visits here, I no longer think his run of bad luck is anything more than that—bad luck. Few chefs have Levitski’s knack for melding sweet and savory flavors and generally unfamiliar ingredients. Likewise, his understanding of texture, such as in the combination of chewy popcorn, crunchy peanuts and a custardy seared scallop, is remarkable. The way things are going now, if I were Levitski, I might just hit up and make sure I’ve got a ticket to Las Vegas on standby.

Rating: 3 stars (out of five)

1417 W. Fullerton, 773.348.0706