Elegant and earthy fare in Chicago
The success of Chicago’s Acadia restaurant success certainly isn’t due to its location. Situated on an unremarkable stretch of the South Loop, the orange brick one-story building looks like just any other anonymous concrete cubicle.
To chef Ryan McCaskey, however, the dissonant location is part of the point: You can find beauty wherever you look. Indeed, once you step inside, Acadia’s subdued colors, chill lounge music and stylish servers instantly transport you to an elegant, restrained contemporary American restaurant that melds the pastoral with the sublime.
Acadia’s diverse influences are expressed not only in the unique menu, but also in the sleek, understated décor. The dining room’s rich earth tones and minimalist furnishings hint at Japanese elegance, while the exposed cedar adds a warm accent. The understated artwork — the largest piece in the dining room is a live collection of birch tree trunks, moss and lichen — underscores the menu’s devotion to earthy pleasures. Indeed, the upscale restaurant’s name comes from the spectacular national park in Maine.
McCaskey’s creative menu mixes perfectly prepared meats and fish with a wide variety of locally sourced vegetables. The evening begins with a playful amuse-bouche, such as miniature vegetables from the restaurant’s own garden on a pillow of housemade Boursin cheese. Appetizers include a charcuterie plate with a disc of head cheese (don’t be put off — it’s surprisingly delicious) and a delicate pile of prosciutto-like coffee-rubbed bresaola.
Acadia’s entrées are gorgeously plated and combine beautifully complementary flavors: The delicious Wagyu tri-tip gently covered in vegetable ash comes with a small cup of oxtail prune consommé, which offers a subtly fragrant counterpoint. The museum-worthy lobster newburg is a brilliant deconstruction, with juicy lobster claw and tail presented in elegant towers alongside single dollops of sauce made of sherry, cream, cognac and egg. If you want to see McCaskey’s best fine-dining work, order a tasting menu that features dishes with ingredients as varied as caviar, kumquat and lobster coconut broth.
The man behind Acadia may not be as well known as some of Chicago’s more famous chefs, but McCaskey is nearly as well-respected as a Grant Achatz or a Stephanie Izard.
In yet another example of Acadia’s paradoxical nature, McCaskey is a two-time James Beard semifinalist, and his restaurant routinely tops local “best of” lists. Yet the modest chef is also known for his juicy lobster rolls and delicious hamburgers, which are made of chuck, brisket and Wagyu beef.
You can try McCaskey’s widely praised sandwiches in the sophisticated bar area, which carries a menu that offers everything from bread and butter pickles to Slagel Farms pork shoulder. (Be forewarned: There’s no TV showing the Blackhawks game here. It’s not that kind of bar.) In the dining room, Acadia’s prices are fair; in the bar, they’re a downright steal: The widely adored burger costs a reasonable $16. Maybe that’s why word has it that the bar fills up fast every night — so get here early if you’re eating at the bar. But definitely, get here.