Sunday, October 22, 2006

North Chicago -- Sanford Restaurant

As I frequently announce, my favorite Chicago restaurant is to be found in Milwaukee (perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly). Sanford, the eponymous restaurant of Chef Sanford D'Amico is a gem, benefitting from its relative absence of the glare of national publicity. (It did make Gourmet magazine's list of the Top 50 American restaurants). Since 1989, Sandy D'Amico has been turning out complex, thrilling dishes in a room that is quiet and sedate. Sanford is a restaurant that doesn't feel the need to hire Norman Foster to design their toilets. After meals at Moto, Alinea, or Avenues, Sanford may seem a bit old-fashioned, but fashion is not always what it is cracked up to be. Sanford's dishes have more in common with those of Trotter, a thoughtful global cuisine, but with a penchant for game (a delightfully undercooked chargrilled loin of elk was on the menu).

My friends and I ordered from the menu (declining the seven course tasting menu at $85; most main courses at Sanford are priced in the low $30s).

My appetizer will surely make my list of the top ten dishes of the year, Lacquered Squab with Salt Cured Foie Gras, Candied Leeks, Rhubarb Compote and Maple Gel. Just like Chicago in an alternative universe that lacks a Councilman Joe Moore. As good as the slightly salted duck liver was, the squab, with its Chinese taste notes, was even better. Although the dish had a sweetness, the sugar was never overpowering. Diners may believe that they love a stark cuisine, but a little bit of maple is a joy. While I sometimes complain about excess complexity, on this plate, all the ingredients combined in exquisite harmony.

To complete the theater of culinary cruelty, only veal can match foie gras. (Once we win the battle of moulard, let us celebrate with some ortolans.) I selected Chargrilled Loin of Strauss Veal with 17 Hour Veal Breast, Crispy Onion Potatoes, Tart Apple and Endive. And no, the veal wasn't slaughtered 17 hours after its birth, that refers to the slow cooking, capturing the essential juices of meat. Here was another excellent dish that reveled in its complexity. The veal was splendid, and the accompaniments added much to each bite. The weakness of the plate was in the chef's generosity in providing accompaniments, which lacked poetry apart from the meat.

Dessert was a richly adequate Banana Butterscotch Toffee Tart with Banana Rum Ice Cream. It was precisely what one might imagine from the description. Very pretty, but more at home at a restaurant with a less creative vision. Chef D'Amico has just opened a high-end Bakery in downtown Milwaukee (Harlequin Bakery) and the dessert seemed not all that different from a tart one might purchase from an excellent public bakery.

On the basis of this recent visit Sanford D'Amico shows no sign of slowing down. His dishes seem neither stale or trendy. Perhaps being head chef in a one-veal town allows one to escape the harsh, hot spotlight of the national gourmet maw. And we Chicagoans like that just fine.

1547 North Jackson Street

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