Dates Visited: 7/29/16
Meal Length: 3 hours 30 minutes
“Acadia was the name given to lands in a portion of the French colonial empire of New France, in northeastern North America that included parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and modern day Maine. The word Acadia comes from the word ‘Arcadia,’ which derives from the Arcadia district in Greece, which since classical antiquity had the extended meanings of ‘refuge’ or ‘idyllic place.’
…An open kitchen and wine room reinforce the fact that Acadia is first and foremost dedicated to quality food and wine with attention to detail paid to both…
…The sophisticated, elegant space of Acadia provides a perfect house for the simultaneously contemporary and classic cuisine from Chef Ryan McCaskey.”
– “About,” www.acadiachicago.com
Why should you be interested?
Newly minted with two tire company stars (up from one–and perhaps the most notable change in Chicago’s 2016 guide), Acadia now increasingly entices jet-setting fine diners and locals who look to anonymous inspectors to guide their decisions. But for me, it’s rare not just to see the cuisine of this broad “New France” region featured, but featured with finesse, dedication, and lofty aspirations. That’s to say, it’s not used so much as a theme or introduction (a crutch), but an inspiration for sincerely creative (by any standard) food. If that maritime Maine part above didn’t tip you off above, this means an eye toward seafood, though some other usual suspects of fine dining often show up.
Chef Ryan McCaskey was born in Saigon and raised in the Chicago suburbs–where by junior year of high school he launched his career as a pilot student in the Harper College Culinary Arts program. He worked his way through Maine and Wisconsin–with a dual attention to savory and pastry–before returning to Chicago. He staged at Trio (Grant Achatz) and TRU before working as executive chef of Rushmore and later Courtright’s (both before my time). He opened Acadia late in 2011, which quickly earned its aforementioned first star in 2012.
How easy is it to locate?
Acadia borders a positively charming, often bustling dog park in the quiet calm of Chicago’s South Loop, not far west of Soldier Field. There’s no blatant signage outside, but the structure is hard to miss.
How do you feel when you enter?
Likely fatigued by the heavy weight of the entry door. But the host stand is straight ahead, the greeting enthusiastic if a little unsure (which I find more endearing anyway than the rehearsed, soulless greetings you sometimes find).
How should you order?
The restaurant offers a five-course menu ($100-$125), a ten-course menu ($150-$185), and a “Grand Tour” ($300) all per person, excluding service, tax, and wine. The “Grand Tour” is only offered on Friday and Saturday to one table–and ultimately consisted of 18-20 courses. I think most first-time diners will be content trying ten courses at the listed price. Also of note–though I haven’t tried it myself–a more casual bar menu with a highly-lauded lobster roll (and some other sizable-seeming dishes) alongside some rather nice cocktails.
What are the notable dishes?
Summer Melons: The several colors of summer melon came blanketed under a thin “melon layer” that made a nice canvas for the delicate adornments of foam and greenery. The gelatinous layer played well off the crunch of the fruit pieces, but more than anything, the sweetness of their nectar opposite some cucumber (I think the broth) made for a bright and deeply refreshing early dish.
“The Garden” (at Yellow Birch Farm): The last time I was served a “garden” was at Meadowood, where it came candied and bitter and a bit disheartening given the expanse of the restaurant’s land. Instead, Acadia looks to Yellow Birch Farm in Deer Isle, Maine for inspiration and arranges their bounty (a “snapshot” of the garden they call it) in a striking mosaic on a large, square plate. Scattering a salad in this manner demands special attention be given to its dressing. And while it was on the lighter side, the components–humbles lettuces, snap peas, slices of carrot and beet and sprigs of microgreens–took center stage. The dish was subtle–fresh and vegetal in flavor–but hugely satisfying in the variety of textures. A nice opportunity to focus on produce and appreciate its individual quirks.
Barramundi: Also called Asian sea bass, the barramundi departed from the New France aesthetic and landed on the plate as a deconstructed bánh mì. I recognized the slaw and thought the presentation and overall idea to be playful. Best of all, the fish–and not the “deconstruction”–was the star. It was assertively crisp (just look at that skin), but moist and savory and well suited on its own or with the accompanying Vietnamese flavors.
A5 Miyazaki Beef: I rarely get excited over a preparation of this ubiquitous fine dining beef, but I was chuffed to see Acadia devoted a chunk of the price of the “Grand Tour” meal towards serving us each a really proud piece of meat. In this case, we were given a few glistening slabs of ribeye further bedecked by trace amounts of uni (sea urchin roe). The meat was mouth-filling with slick, intensely savory fat–with the sea urchin adding a buttery texture more than anything. However, the dish was clearly crafted to please the guest. This was no delicate portion, no effort to show off or surprise with some strange form or complement. It’s wagyu as you’ve dream it, wagyu as you’ve wanted it after every morsel given and gone in other restaurants: perfectly cooked, plentiful, and simply (but somewhat decadently) dressed in such as a way to ratchet up its most remarkable qualities.
Corn: One of three (yes, three) lobster dishes on the menu this evening–not even counting bonuses like an opening mini lobster roll and later serving of lobster ice cream. This last love letter to the crustacean focused on sweet, seasonal corn–and unfolded like a deconstructed chowder. A chunky chowder that benefitted from the crunch of the corn and chew of the plump lobster but retained the soothing warmth and concentration one seeks from a great broth.
Rabbit: I can’t remember quite what the preparation of the rabbit was–a roulade made up of some parts–but it boasted a crisp skin and some powerful succulence that played nicely off of the grilled peach and grain mustard on the plate.
Foie Gras Gâteau: The transition from savory to sweet was well handled: with gâteau referring to any small chocolate cake “with crunchy rind and mellow filling” that is served warm with ice cream. The flavor of the ice cream and mound of other cream escape me, but the cake was impressively soft and pleasantly sweet with the added depth of the sharp, savory liver.
THE BREAD BASKET
Two breads were dispersed during the course of the meal–an element of bread “pairing” I appreciate. First, an orb of brioche to follow the garden course. It was served with eggplant butter, and though I didn’t get much out of that, I enjoyed its ruffled presentation and the soft, rich crumb of the roll. The subsequent biscuit (also with butter) served after the rabbit was a nice treat: warm and flaky and playful in the latter stages of the savory courses.
How does the service make you feel?
At ease. Some of the most naturally friendly service you’ll see at this level. There is a bit of a veneer you have break through, yet the service is undeniably earnest, the intentions pure, and the diction sincerely excited. And mechanically they do lack some slight polish–that seems to disturb people who value needless theatrics over a legitimate feeling of warmth. But clumsiness does not always stem from carelessness. The real treat, as always, is to consume food and drink of this quality without the hushed tones and haughtiness of some hallowed establishments. You’ll still be delighted by the way you’re taken care of.
Was the meal satisfying?
Oh yes. Acadia’s ten-course format–which I think most first time diners will elect to choose–is a very nice meal. One won’t feel stuffed, but I think an average level of satiation bolstered by the variety of textures and presentations at play. The ten-course, also appropriately, anchors the “New France” seafood fare to a couple more robust meat dishes at the end, a nice touch towards making diners feel well fed. When it comes to the “Grand Tour” specifically: they just don’t offer menus of this scale and breadth anymore. I will proudly say that I left the restaurant unabashedly FULL (keep in mind the bread was limited to just two pieces). The courses always offered at least a few significant mouthfuls and didn’t evolve into an endless array of bites like some longer tasting menus. Further, those presentations and the incorporation of sauces and other seasonings around the plate kept us engaged and actively mixing flavors even in the later stages of the meal. The length of the menu also allowed three dedicated lobster dishes (in total) to punctuate the meal: each before a different protein and a wonderful way for the kitchen to show their expertise with their “main” Maine ingredient. My companions were dizzy with delight–only one couldn’t finish their last dessert–but this is a good thing. A final savory course of pork belly proved the only real disappointment–texturally. But I will say I licked my lips all the way through three desserts and left with the unmistakable feeling I’d been cared for and fed.
How does the restaurant rank in its category?
Service, as I mentioned, lacks the robotic precision and polish some Yelpers enslave themselves to. And there is perhaps a bit of tension, a bit of pressure given the all-encompassing dining room and unyielding flurry of activity. Yet none of this obscures the real, rare sense of warmth from the staff. The servers at Alinea or Grace (and even Sixteen and a range of one Michelin star restaurants) might well display better mechanical skill in pouring and serving. But they don’t quite convey the same warmth or ease as dinner at Acadia, and I think only Next and Elizabeth really best them in that category.
Would I go back?
Happily. My first meal at Acadia, in the summer of 2015, bordered on magical. A meal that following fall–just a couple weeks after the bump up to two Michelin stars–disappointed with more style than substance. Yet this meal (and one a few weeks prior in the summer of 2016) cemented the restaurant’s quality and care for hospitality. It can be hard to swallow a dissatisfying meal at the fine dining level, but trust–especially in a restaurant’s character and culture–is usually, wonderfully rewarded.
How hard are reservations to get?
Like so many other Chicago fine dining restaurants, Acadia uses Tock to sell ticketed reservations. Availability during the week (even same day for a ten-course tasting!) does not present a problem. Those looking for a prime Friday/Saturday reservation–or to grab the “Grand Tour”–might want to look a week in advance.
Reservations and other information can be found at www.acadiachicago.com