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North Side Review: Baccala

By Amelia Levin in Food on Jul 10, 2007 3:10PM


John Bubala, chef/owner of the popular Timo restaurant on an industrial strip along Halsted Street near Milwaukee Avenue gets it right there. And now, with his recently opened Baccala in Wicker Park, he gets it right again. Shocker. When you use super-fresh ingredients, many from local farmers and ranchers, coupled with rich, velvety butters, creams and olivey olive oil, how can food not taste darn good?

Baccala’s menu doesn’t stray far from the type of food you’d find at Timo — seasonal, contemporary, and comfort food-esque with many Italian influences. But the great thing about this sister restaurant is that it’s a little more approachable thanks to a casual, laid back attitude, affordable prices, and dual option of small vs. large portions for most of the menu items. Here you make your own meal, as extravagant or as simple as you want. You can go in and get a three-course meal with a bottle of wine, or simply order a few small-portioned entrees to share and nosh over drinks.

A signature dish on the menu is, of course, the baccala, which is Italian for salted codfish. Sounds semi-unappetizing, but in truth, it’s a standout. The cod gets slow cooked and then pureed with roasted shallots, potatoes, lots of garlic, chives and, in Bubala’s version, fresh mini sea scallops, and a little bit of cream. One could eat the garlicky, light and creamy blend as a main dish or even just a side with a little bread.

Bubala’s famous for his pork dishes, and in talking to him, that’s probably because he gets the meat from George Rasmussen, owner of Swan Creek Organic Farm in Michigan, where the animals roam free and graze on pesticide-free grass. Choose from three main pork dishes: belly, butt and shank. Again, sounds unappetizing, but have you had pork belly in a while? Apparently it’s been somewhat of a, daresay, "it" trend among Chicago restaurants as of late, and it’s certainly a delicacy, meaning after just a few bites or so, you’re satisfied. Here the small portion of the pork belly (and that’s plenty for two people when sharing other dishes) takes the shape of a small rectangle drizzled with balsamic syrup and peas atop a generous portion of earthy, creamy, super-rich risotto with smoked gouda cheese. One forkful, and you taste three layers: a crunch like bacon, meatiness like pork roast, and a buttery bite that lingers. Delicacies aren’t few and far between on the menu: there’s also the lamb tongue if you’re the brave type. We didn’t have the pleasure of trying it this time, but perhaps next.

2007_07_Chicagoist_Baccala2.JPGAnother winner: the special roast chicken, again in small-plate form — or not, since the small portions don’t fit your initial impression of what a “small plate” or tapas-like dish would. In fact they’re quite generous here — that, or the dishes are so rich, you won’t leave hungry. Anyway, back to topic — the roast chicken comes as a leg and a thigh, with an herby crust enveloping the juicy, hearty meat. A side of garlicky mashed potatoes pairs nicely. To finish it all off, we chose the fresh, farmers market pears sautéed in butter and caramel wrapped in a fluffy crepe, topped with what else but the famous Homer’s vanilla ice cream. Can’t really go wrong there.

The wine menu is simple and affordable for the 'hood with glasses at around $6 to $7, and bottles from $26 to the high-end of $40. We had a nice, light and fruity pinot gris that paired nicely with the rich foods. Our server, who also is the general manager, was attentive, helpful with suggestions, and also knew when to leave us alone.

Inside, it wasn’t too packed or loud (although we were there late Friday night), with loungey, trance/chill-out vibes playing in the backgrounds. We saw couples enjoying a romantic evening as well as groups of neighborhood locals enjoying a fun night out over wine.

Colorful pictures of Bubala’s trips showing produce markets, farmers, and other food and people across the Midwest, Italy and other countries line the exposed brick, sage- and beige-colored walls, while the warm tones carry throughout with wood floors and banquettes, speckled by sleek black chairs and white cloth tables. A small bar flanked by some funky, African-style art and sculptures takes up the back room. No full bar here — just wine and beer.

It’s too bad we didn’t have room in our stomachs for the seafood ravioli with an artichoke sauce, parmesan and scallions, or the beef short ribs with roasted cauliflower, pickled garlic, sherry and olives. But with such an affordable and easy menu with the type of quality and sophistication that you really couldn’t get for less, of course we’ll stop in for another bite.

Baccala, 773-227-1400, is located at 1540 N. Milwaukee Ave. Open 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.