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This May Be The Best Fine Dining Experience In Chicago Right Now

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 3, 2015 3:04PM

The tomato and melon course at Intro/Handout

I know what you're thinking—the "best fine dining experience in Chicago" is a pretty bold statement. But hear me out! Does Intro, the rotating-chef restaurant in the former L20 space have better food than Alinea? Nah. Are its themes as exciting as Next? Probably not. Is its food as radical or its experience as interactive as El Ideas or 42 Grams? Not a chance.

But I stand by my statement. Because Intro's food, despite rotating though three different chefs, is consistently amazing, the service is perfect (with echoes of the precision of L20) and, most importantly, it avoids two seemingly unavoidable fine dining cliches. First, it's reasonably priced and second, it's efficiently paced. All these things combine, at least for now, to put it in the top spot.

Currently, the kitchen is helmed by Chef Aaron Martinez. The gimmick behind Intro is that, as the name implies, the restaurant introduces new chefs to Chicago. Martinez has been in the industry (mostly out in California) for years, but he's never had an executive chef's post until now. That means he has just three months to impress everyone—and he's hit the ground running.

"I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to showcase what I can do," explains Martinez. "Normally, the Chef gets most of the accolades, so if you're not on the top, you don't get much attention."

Intro is an incubator for up-and-coming talent, and you won't find anyone lying down on the job or resting on their laurels - there just isn't time.

Chef Aaron Martinez. Photos provided by the restaurant.

At Intro, the new menu cycle doesn't just dictate what's on the plate; the decor and the music rotate each time as well. While the last iteration, under Chef Erik Anderson, boasted a rustic room filled with taxidermy (including one memorable giant bear), the current version is cooler, less dramatic and more plant-filled. This is a perfect match for Martinez's food, which is light, seasonal and, as he puts it, "clean." Chefs say "clean" and "simple" about overwrought food often enough to make any reporter roll their eyes after a spell, but Martinez actually backs it up.

Consider Martinez's favorite, a bright sunburst of a dish that feels like summer on a plate. It combines ultra-fresh tomatoes from the farmers market, sweet melon, salty ham and blossoming coriander flowers. "You have to use these small tomatoes when they are at their peak, and i'm not going to change the dish until I can't get any more tomatoes," insists Martinez.

The gone, but not forgotten, beef course at Intro. Photos provided by the restaurant.

The menu has already rotated out since my visits—a fish course has been replaced with chicken with matsutake mushrooms, and a unique beef course (made with sous vide short rib that, instead of the usual pot roast-like shredding, came out like a perfect rare steak) has been replaced with lamb.

"We're using Catalpa Farms lamb from southern illinois and it's one of the best lambs I've ever had," explains Martinez.

A dish that remains on the menu is the starter course of salmon, which tastes like the perfect everything lox bagel you've always wanted, without the bagel. It comes with dill and an astonishing mustard ice cream, which I would eat for dessert all the time if I could.

A light strawberry dessert course to send you home. Photos provided by the restaurant.

Enough about the food. What else makes Intro so special? Well, I've been lucky enough to try two of the three menus that have come out thus far (some multiple times), and one consistent feature throughout has been the pacing. How many fine dining meals have had their magic ruined because they take six hours and the kitchen can't seem to get more than one course out every half hour? At Intro, you can do six courses in 70 minutes if you're so inclined (you can also linger, of course).

"We're not doing overly garnished things, the technique isn't as hard to get onto the plate," says Martinez. "You don't want to do things just to please yourself, you have to think about the guests."

Parents won't have to pay the babysitter triple overtime, and you won't fall asleep over dessert. You also won't leave feeling like you've somehow swallowed 4000 calories of fat, yet are still hungry.

There's even a shorter version of the menu, which is just four courses, available on weekdays. "If you want to come in for a quick meal, or spend time outside, you can come in early and still enjoy the rest of your evening," Martinez explains. The price? $85 for six courses (really seven, with a bonus course) and $55 for four.

When L20 closed, it was, at least in part, because not enough Chicago diners were interested in the type of experience it offered. While I enjoyed that restaurant, I also memorably almost fell asleep during a dinner there that stretched into its fourth hour. Intro is the slimmed down, less fussy version of that kind of dining that appeals to the normal person who doesn't view dinner as a marathon.

Martinez is in the kitchen until the end of October.