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June 30, 2006

Zealous

Dominic Armato
Well, I'm feeling fairly settled in my new home. That's all of the coding and copying I care to do for a while. Back to the good stuff!

A week ago, I received a rather unexpected invitation to dine with an individual whose identity I'm not quite ready to reveal juuuuust yet. When my mysterious dining companion (hereafter referred to as MDC... sorry, MDC :-) left the restaurant choices up to me, with the suggestion that we should hit a place that was upscale and stylish but not a massive production, I started on a search that led me to Zealous. It's been on my radar for a while, but I'd never quite managed to get around to it. My memory is fuzzy on these things (in fact, it's the main reason this blog exists), but I remember it opening to much fanfare and very favorable reviews, only to drop off the map shortly thereafter. I'm not certain what led me to the website, but after two minutes of browsing, it was a lead pipe cinch. It's fine dining of the slightly less than extravagant variety, the menu pushed my buttons left and right, and the dishes seemed long on presentation, an element that was of particular interest to MDC. Thusly, the Summer of Fine Dining kicked off at Zealous.

Dominic Armato
Zealous is owned and cheffed by a fellow named Michael Taus, a Trotter protege who did a year with Joachim Splichal in L.A. and then came back home to roost. He first set up shop in Elmhurst in 1993, received a great deal of praise, and then shifted his operation to the city proper in 2002. The space is rather nice, modern but comfortable, situated in a converted loft space in the odd nook of River North that lies between Chicago Avenue and the Ohio feeder ramp. I'm fairly certain I once dined at a different restaurant in the same space, and it's going to drive me nuts until I figure out what it was... a little help? At any rate, the menu is self-proclaimed modern American, with heavy Asian influences and a healthy dose of creativity. The a la carte selections looked mighty tasty, but at a restaurant such as this, a tasting menu was our target. Opting for semi-restrained opulence, we skipped the seven-course in favor of the five and settled in.

Dominic Armato
We started with a little amuse, which I felt was a little meh. It was a watermelon gelee with a bit of mint puree and black sesame. Amuse, to me, needs to pop. When all you're getting is the tiniest of tastes, it had better be explosive, and explosive this was not. I thought it was far too subtle for an amuse. The gelee was nice enough, if a little overly firm, and a mint accompaniment is a gimme, but the sesame wasn't working for me. MDC, however, seemed more enthused than I was. Your mileage may vary. Our first official course was a deconstructed dragon roll. Now, the practice of dish deconstruction is a controversial one. People tend to love it or hate it. I'm in neither camp. I'm skeptical but open, and I'm appreciative as often as I'm disappointed. In this case, it seemed a little unnecessary, which bothers me only if it hurts the dish. Thankfully, it didn't in the least. The dish was slathered with an avocado-wasabi puree, topped with three primary components... rice, tempura shrimp and grilled eel... and drizzled with a little teriyaki-esque sauce, a mango puree and a bit of powdered nori. So it was essentially a pretty presentation of a common dish. Okay, it was a very pretty presentation of a common dish. But it was, to be fair, uncommonly good. There was a part of me that didn't want to be overly impressed with a fancified neo-sushi standard, but the part of me that flat-out enjoyed it won out. I dug it.

Dominic Armato
The next dish was a bit of a challenge. It was a piece of seared duck breast with a morel risotto, citrus foam and a fennel and green apple salad. I felt the risotto was rather flat, but its weakness was less glaring when taken purely as a component of a larger whole. While many are rightfully sick of foam, I thought it worked here, giving a very nice, light citrusy edge that wouldn't have been the same were it in liquid form. What caused me some consternation, however, was the duck itself. I have a very, very high tolerance for raw and lightly cooked meats. While I generally order medium-rare, I don't think I've ever been served a piece of meat that was too underdone for me to enjoy. But this duck was barely warm. It would have been very rare for beef, much less poultry. Years of meals in China have made me bolder than I should be when it comes to potential foodborne illnesses, so I wasn't overly concerned, but MDC inquired just to be safe. We were assured that it was, in fact, prepared just as chef had intended. After working through the dish and taking it at face value, I wasn't bothered by the light cooking, but I'm not convinced it was the best choice. At the very least, even if the center were barely cooked, I felt it needed a more aggressive searing. The beautiful, thick layer of fat was clearly visible right under the skin, looking almost raw, its rich potential begging to be set free. I'm still mulling this one over, but while I firmly support utilizing the full range of doneness to varying effects, I'm leaning toward the belief that this dish could have been better with a little more heat. As served, it was good, but not excellent.

Dominic Armato
The third and final savory dish was enjoyable, but illustrative of one of my Chicago fine dining pet peeves. Here in Chicago, we've come a long way in terms of high-end dining sophistication over the past five years. But despite this awakening, we're still a meat and potatoes city at heart. As such, tasting menus citywide serve an absurd number of beef filets. It's as though these restaurants feel they have to provide something beefy and hearty for at least one dish, lest they lose a chunk of their audience. In truth, they're probably right, but it's doubly frustrating that the most common beefy outlet is the most uninteresting and tasteless cut available. Timidity is not a quality I admire in my fine restaurants. But that said, as meat and potatoes goes, this dish was particularly well-executed and had a couple of nice touches. To appeal to diners like me, or perhaps to the chef's own sanity, the filet was paired with a bit of shredded short rib that was topped with a shallot confit. The dish was then rounded out with some light and yet pleasantly gummy potato gnocchi and a corn fonduta. The filet was a filet, the short rib (I adore short rib) was tasty but less exciting than I might have hoped, the gnocchi were simple and delightful, and the fonduta was an unusual and very much appreciated accent. All in all, a very well-composed dish, if somewhat conservative.

Dominic Armato
As for dessert? I'm admittedly a little handicapped when it comes to dessert appreciation. I always enjoy my sweets, but I'm rarely impressed by them. We first received a bit of sorbet which, oddly enough, comprised an entire course. One was coconut and lychee, the other was... I think... passionfruit, and both were seated atop strawberry slices and a vanilla-pineapple juice. Both were refreshing and enjoyable, but unexceptional. This was followed by a duo of desserts that, in amoeba-like fashion, apparently divided into four on the way out of the kitchen. I think the chef was feeling charitable, and it was greatly appreciated. There was a creme brulee, a banana tiramisu, a cheesecake with berries (the nature of which I missed), and a deconstructed Black Forest chocolate cake. Again, all enjoyable, all quite beautiful, none exceptional.

In the end, I can definitely say I enjoyed my meal, but not so much that I feel compelled to return. I didn't feel the food was lacking, exactly, but the presentations were more impressive than the flavors, which isn't a good sign. To be quite frank, I thought one of the biggest problems was price performance. I'm not the least bit opposed to spending obscene amounts of money on divine food, but $85 for the five-course menu seems rather steep for what we received, especially since it felt more like 4.5 courses, given that two were dessert and one of those was a little sorbet that was, in fact, presented as a "palate-cleanser". And I don't think the price would have bothered me for a moment if it had been a really spectacular meal, but there wasn't a single "Oooooh, that's really good" moment. I think this sounds overly harsh... I did enjoy my meal... but I think the restaurant is positioned a little higher than it should be. It was creative and extremely beautiful. But while tasty, there was nothing gripping or inspiring, which I expect at this level. In any case, one thing is certain. It appears that I'm not the only one who doesn't feel compelled to return. Our reservation was, as MDC described it, "Outrageously early. Like, senior citizen early." So, on a Thursday night, we walked in at 5:00 and walked out at 7:30. During that time, when I say we had the place to ourselves, I don't mean it as a figure of speech. We were the only diners in the joint. With attendance like that, compelled or no, it would seem that returning may not be an option for very long.

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