In Chicago, we're blessed to have a plethora of fine dining establishments at our disposal. The nice folks at Michelin agree with this sentiment, having designated Chicago in 2011 as only the second dining locale in North America worthy of its own Michelin Guide (San Francisco will be the third later this year, while New York has had one for a while). Some of these local upscale eateries have a globally-high profile (e.g., Alinea or the now-departed Charlie Trotter's), while others operate almost anonymously (e.g., EL Ideas) save for nutty foodheads like myself. Mrs. Hackknife and I recently had the pleasure of dining at a Logan Square restaurant that clearly falls in the latter category: Bonsoiree (2728 W. Armitage), unmarked on the outside and mostly ignored except for Chicago's Michelin inspector(s), who awarded its chef/owner Shin Thompson a single star in 2011 for his imaginative tasting menus in a BYO setting.
Before getting to our specific experience, however, I'd be remiss not to mention some backstory for context here. Only a few months ago, Chef Thompson announced his intention to open a new restaurant in the currently red-hot dining corridor around Randolph and Halsted. In order to free up some of his time for the new venture, he made what many considered to be a blockbuster deal in the culinary world, persuading another well-regarded local chef, Beverly Kim (fresh off her strong showing on Top Chef: Austin and rave reviews for her latest work at Aria in the Fairmont Hotel) and her husband Johnny Clark (also a chef) to sign on with him as partners at Bonsoiree. This move gave Chefs Kim and Clark a new creative outlet for their Korean-tinged fine dining concepts (and a bit of much-needed free time with their young son) while allowing Chef Thompson to garner some new buzz for the existing restaurant during the transition over to his new project. The strategy certainly got my attention; when the time came for us to select a dining locale with another foodie couple (a co-worker of Mrs. Hackknife's and his wife), Bonsoiree was at the top of the list and I made a late October reservation there for the 4 of us.
Filled with anticipation, I was greatly surprised to get a call a short time later from Matty Colson (the sommelier at Bonsoiree, another recent new addition to the staff) with the news that the restaurant was abruptly closing in 10 days. What happened? Well, neither Chef Thompson nor the Kims/Clarks were revealing many details, other than it was a mutually-agreed upon decision (no word on if it was an acrimonious split, although I suspect some hard feelings abound - in her Top Chef appearance, Chef Kim revealed herself to be both tough-as-nails and a lightning rod for controversy, someone whose bad side you wanted to avoid). In the meantime, Matty asked if we wanted to move our reservation so that we could dine with them before closing, and, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to try Chef Kim and Chef Clark's cuisine, I reluctantly agreed (our companions had to bow out due to scheduling difficulties). After making the change, I wondered if I'd made an expensive mistake. During the last week of service, would the staff be motivated to give patrons the experience thought highly enough by Michelin to award a star or would they just be phoning it in until the kitchen shut down? As the day approached, I felt what could be described as excitement tempered by a small dose of dread.
Sunday night arrived and we traveled to Logan Square for our mystery meal (I had no idea exactly what kind of dishes we would be seeing, although I discovered later that the whole menu was posted on their website, a rare homework lapse on my part). We sat down at a table near the pass in a small, spare, Japanese-styled dining room, all wood, muted colors, and straight lines. Matty brought out the first of our 12 courses on the tasting menu, a Brie-filled gougere (a cheese puff common in French cuisine) topped with a pile of smoked hackleback sturgeon caviar, paired with a flute of champagne. I've eaten gougeres before (wouldn't hesitate to polish off a dozen of them, in fact), but this was the first I'd seen combined with caviar, and the effect was one of pure luxury, especially with the bubbly to wash it down. The next dish transported us from France north to Scandinavia, what appeared to be a Noma-inspired dish of a single oyster doused in a smoked elderberry mignonette and perched atop a bed of round stones and pine twigs. There wasn't a lot of meat in my oyster; however, the mignonette did its job of conjuring a boreal forest via flavors of smoke and pine.
The third course may very well end up being the signature plate of the new staff's short-lived tenure. A bowl of assorted orange, yellow, and purple carrot pieces (described on the website as being ember roasted "Thai style" - not really sure what that means) interspersed with mint leaves/dollops of white whipped yogurt and drizzled with coconut water appeared on the table. Visually striking (see photo above), this dish clearly echoed notes of Thailand and was delicious, although I found the smoke in the carrots to be a bit too prominent (apparently, smokiness is a preferred motif for the Kim/Clark team). Our drink pairing for the carrots was a nice glass of Cederberg Bukettraube wine, made from a lesser-known white grape variety in South Africa (indeed, I don't recall us encountering this varietal when we visited South Africa wine country in 2007) that has floral notes like a muscat, plus some herbal character like a sauvignon blanc.
What you see above was the dish that followed, a small container of traditional savory Japanese egg custard known as chawanmushi, in this case livened up with a little Jinhua ham (a dry cured variety from China), a splash of XO cognac, and some Chinook salmon roe. Given my dislike of undercooked egg products, Mrs. Hackknife was sure I'd have a problem eating this; however, I found it to be surprisingly tasty as long as I didn't think about it too much. Staying with Japan, our next course was a disk of roasted purple Okinawan sweet potato, dusted with nori (seaweed) powder and perfectly paired with a robust, earthy dopplebock from G. Schneider and Sohn in Bavaria called Aventinus (all in all, Matty's drink pairings were nearly spot-on each and every time, rivaling the heralded pairings from Grant Achatz's Alinea/Next empire in breadth and creativity). Plate #6 was a filet of poached Lake Superior trout, served with roasted potatoes/leeks and drizzled with a concentrated leek jus, which Mrs. Hackknife and I wanted to lap up like kittens enjoying a saucer of cream. This was a minimalist, well-executed dish enhanced by the glass of Melon de Bourgogne that accompanied it.
After the fish, we received what could be considered our first "traditional" Korean dish (supposedly the strength of the kitchen's repertoire), a small bowl of seolleontang, or "bone soup", usually made from slow roasting ox bones and other cuts of meat. The house version (see photo above) sported a small slab of bone marrow, pieces of omasum tripe, shreds of caramelized brisket, and scallions, a hearty riot of flavors all rolled up into a few slurps. Matty brought out an unusual wine to drink with the soup, a slightly-oxidized white from Lopez de Heredia in Rioja (Spain) that took a little of the broth's savory edge away (much like the splash of sherry added to turtle soup).
Staying with the meat genre, the next course served was a roasted squab (cooked medium rare) with mushrooms and pickled onions (see photo above) - not terribly inventive, but tasty just the same, although the breast featured some ultra-gamey bites that made me recoil a bit (not even the elegant pinot noir from the Pfalz region of Germany we drank with the squab could counter it). Better received were the two thin slices of duck prosciutto ("a gift from the kitchen", as Matty said) that proceeded the squab, resembling watermelon wedges and packed with rich, fatty goodness. Even more impressive was the following plate, which appeared at first to be just a pile of vegetables (including pickled radishes and kale chips); however, hidden within the pile was a decadent slab of foie gras mousse encrusted with crushed coffee beans and buckwheat grains for texture. The missus and I greatly enjoyed the mousse creation and the wine that came with it, a pale red from the Jura region of southeastern France. And as much as I hate to admit it, the chefs' kale chips were, well, better than my Commissary version (just a little, though). A dish containing a slice of smoked beet (topped with balsamic vinegar/crunchy bee pollen) and a slab of what I thought was a soft goat cheese (it actually turned out to be a vegan cheese made from cashew paste - sure fooled me) provided a nice bridge between the last savory courses and dessert, in spite of the 1990-ish edible flower garnish.
We received three separate dessert courses, the first of which you see in the photo above, an amazing "study in chrysanthemum": pavlova (one of Mrs. Hackknife's favorites) infused with chrysanthemum essence, topping a cured egg yolk mixed with chrysanthemum gel, dusted with powdered sugar, flower petals, and a little gold leaf. Again, there was some question tableside as to my ability to consume the messy egg, but I took one for the team (and was the better for it). Matty's drink pairing was another oxidized wine, this time an amontillado Sherry that melded quite well with the rich and sweet notes of the dessert. The second dessert (another kitchen gift - apparently, they were feeling generous that night) consisted of a blend of grapefruit pulp, malted barley, and coconut, simple yet full-flavored, nudging the experience back in the direction of Thailand (although the Floc de Gascogne, a fortified apertif from southwest France that accompanied the dish returned us back to Europe). One last echo of Korea came next, a take on the shaved ice dish known as pat bing su - in this case, wood sorrel granite played the part of the shaved ice, with additional flavors/textures provided by sweet mung beans and an aloe gel (all washed down neatly with a slightly-dry Kabinett Riesling).
Feeling pretty satisfied at this point, we nibbled on some mignardises (Earl Grey truffle, espresso crisps, and green apple chews - see photo above) while we waited to settle up with our servers. At nearly $200 a head, the meal wasn't cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly seemed worth it to us. In the course of a few hours, we enjoyed a number of Korean dishes that were new to us, yet also went on a world tour of other storied cuisines that were often presented with a slight twist. Having reached the menu's conclusion, I had mixed emotions bouncing through my head - sadness/regret at Bonsoiree's imminent closing (much like when we ate at Spring), joy of having experienced Chef Kim/Clark's work before it was too late, elation (or was that just a buzz?) over the stellar and abundant drink pairings, and hope that we might dine again with this dynamic duo (a trio if you count Matty) at a future-locale-to-be-determined someday. Regardless, as to the question of the restaurant's quality and effort during their final week of operation, clearly we made the correct decision to spend our dining dollars here...