By Chuck Sudo in Food on Jul 17, 2009 3:20PM
My dinner companions have been insistent: "It's not Lula, don't you agree?"
Nightwood certainly isn't Lula Café, although it does share the same owners in chefs Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, a focus on local and seasonal ingredients and simple cooking in a casual atmosphere. Lula was something of an an underdog: a small restaurant set up in a neighborhood (Logan Square) that wasn't exactly known for its finer dining options. Nearly ten years later Hammel and Tshilds recreate the template with Nightwood, with two notable wrinkles.
First, the menu here changes daily under the deft hand of chef de cuisine Jason Vincent. Based on our visits, "change" more often than not means a dish's accoutrements rotate depending on seasonality. The dishes that anchor the menu e.g. the house burger, Wisconsin wood-grilled trout and rotisserie chicken each had different sides and garnishes on my visits. Vincent and his kitchen also rebounded from some serious oversalting on opening night with a sublime balance of flavors, especially on that trout dinner. Another winner was a duck pot pit, served with a mixed green salad that hit all the right taste notes
The second wrinkle is Nightwood's décor, from the team of Kevin Heisner and Matt Eisler (Empire Liquors, Bar DeVille, Angels & Kings). No one is going to confuse Nightwood with those three places. Instead, Nightwood is as comfortable and casual as the food. With communal seating in a downstairs wine room, a spacious enclosed outdoor patio and bar seating, Nightwood can can comfortably seat everyone making the trek to Pilsen, which means that the wait lines often found at Lula during peak hours won't be a problem. For my dining dollar, the best seats in the house are right in front of Nightwood's open kitchen, complete with a wood-fired grill and rotisserie to give patrons a birds-eye view of the workflow. This should be required seating for dates or parties of 3, as you'll be able to sample a good amount of the menu.
Nightwood's combination of quality local ingredients and casual atmosphere had me drawing parallels not to Lula, but to Chez Panisse (although Alica Waters's West Coast mecca only changes out the menu weekly). While the statement, "It isn't Lula" kept ringing in my head for days on end I finally came to the conclusion that Nightwood doesn't have to be in order to stand on its own.
Nightwood, 2119 S. Halsted, 312-526-3385.