Reflections in the Pond

Michael Nagrant / 10.11.06

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.

Chicago is experiencing gastronomic innovation the likes that have not been seen outside of Paris since the early seventies when Paul Bocuse and the Troisgros brothers practiced Nouvelle cuisine, eschewing heavy creams and butters in favor of pure vegetable-based sauces and light broths.

Chicago is ground zero for the postmodern food movement dubbed molecular gastronomy. It’s the culinary face that launched a thousand national magazine writers and their lavish dining expense accounts upon our fair city, and proved we are no longer the second the city, at least when it comes to food. I applaud the explosion of lasers and liquid nitrogen in the kitchen like a sun-soaked South Sider roaring at the spectacle of a Jermaine Dye dinger.

Yet, the problem with some postmodernism is that it often reinforces or mimics the alienation of the world, leaving us even more cold and unsettled than we were before. Food at its worse has always been basic sustenance, and at its best, comfort for the soul. Combining postmodernism with culinary technique threatens that connection.

Generally molecular gastronomy has focused more on amusing than alienating, but its proponents are pushing it farther, employing natural stabilizers like xantham gum or molecular bonders like transglutaminase, also known as “meat glue.” With transglutaminase, you could theoretically bond a piece of quail to a piece of turkey and create a “quirkey.”

And quirky is how it’s beginning to feel. Even though the stabilizers and bonders are naturally derived, some of today’s restaurant food feels a lot closer to industrial chewing gum than the farm.

Ultimately, though, these emotional arguments are a long way of saying that, drunk on the pyrotechnics and theatrics of mad-scientist cooking, I’d forgotten the perfection of a rainbow-hued slice of heirloom tomato glistening in a simple drizzle of golden olive oil, or the candy-cane striations of a gently roasted beet. That is until I dined recently at North Pond and tasted the farm-fresh purity of chef Bruce Sherman’s cooking.

Sherman is the quintessential opposite to the molecular gastronomists. While he’s grounded in French technique from his training at the Parisian Ecole Superieure de Cuisine Francaise, he spent years in India, where there were no FedExed tropical fruits from South America or scientific powders, cooking only with what was available at the corner vegetable “wallah” or vendor.

Sherman’s vegetable stand is now Chicago’s Green City Market, and his “wallahs” are the small family farmers from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. He practices his craft in an old park district ice-skater’s warming hut that was transformed into an Arts and Crafts gem by architect Nancy Warren in 1997. The warm interiors channel the prairie spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, and it’s an appropriate backdrop for my rediscovery of pure-flavored New American cuisine. The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction to mass-produced household goods and the architecture flooding England in the early twentieth century, a rejection of the first wave of modern industrialization. To be fair, Sherman was practicing his craft long before molecular gastronomy took grip on the world, and therefore he wasn’t rejecting any school of thought, just pursuing his own, but the coincidence is still interesting.

Sherman’s food reconnects you with the earth. A large soft-boiled hen’s egg perched on an island of artisanal grits, dotted with bacon “salad” and surrounded by a verdant moat of sweet onion-parsley, is a celebration of spring.

Sweet corn on the cob soup garnished with succulent thyme-basted frog legs and smoky grilled corn relish channels swaying stalks and waves of corn tassels on a weekend drive through farm country.

Sherman pursues this purity of flavors without whiz-bang apparatus, and yet his cuisine is still as complex and creative as the molecular gastronomists.

A sage-roasted breast of guinea hen, accompanied by exquisite pinwheel cross-sections of bacon mousseline leg sausage, delicate ribbons of pappardelle pasta and a glistening relish of Marcona almonds and Lucques olives would take two days and an army of sous chefs to make at home.

An Anise Hyssop sorbet is unfamiliar and yet it’s a delightful explosion of licorice, mint and citrus so tasty that the flavor would sell well if it were introduced down at Mario’s Italian Lemonade on Taylor Street.

For dessert, there’s even a thyme ice-cream topping a broiled gratin of warm Red Haven peaches, but it’s no intellectual stretch. The thyme’s herby bouquet with a slight woodsy hint of clove melds with the citrus from a silky sabayon, and enhances and balances the sweetness of the late summer peaches.

I am thankful for these tasty reminders. The great thing about living in this city is that we’re lucky enough to be blessed with the wizardry of Grant Achatz at Alinea and Homaro Cantu at Moto, and yet there’s still room for the New American purity of local sustainably family-farmed ingredients and Chicago’s other great cuisine from chefs like Paul Kahan of Blackbird, Paul Virant of Vie and Bruce Sherman of North Pond.

North Pond is located at 2610 Cannon Dr. Phone: 773-477-5845

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago.