Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Stephanie's Birthday Dinner at Spring

Having taken the whole week off to celebrate her birthday, Stephanie thought that it would be nice to spend the time doing things that she doesn't normally get to do during the week when she's at work. So on her birthday we headed to Hot Doug's for lunch. Their Saturday lines are often too long, so it was nice to go during the week when we could get in quickly. Stephanie had her usual Chicago dog with cheese fries, and I enjoyed my last foie gras dog in Chicago (the ban goes in effect today) and a mushroom swiss pork sausage. This seemed like the perfect start to our big day of fine eating.

Sadly, dinner was unable to meet the high standard set by lunch at Doug's. We had reservation at 7:30 for Spring, a fairly fancy restaurant housed in an old bath house in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. We'd been meaning to go for some time and were even more encouraged by the announcement of Chef Shawn McClain's James Beard Foundation Best Chef in the Midwest award. Spring, his first solo restaurant, is devoted to Asian-inspired fish, while newer restaurants focus on vegetables and steaks.

When we arrived, the dining room was less that half full, and it would remain so throughout the evening. Clearly the James Beard award does not do for a restaurant's business what 3 Michelin stars do or, for that matter, a Food & Wine "Best New Chef" award does (Schwa is booked for the next two months). I was fortunate that the restaurant was not more full, however, because the table we were seated at had a wobbly chair. The staff were nice enough to move us.

As we poured over the menu, Stephanie had the inspired idea of having a single raw oyster between each course of the meal. We checked with the waiter, and he agreed (if not gladly). The oysters were Rocky Points from Prince Edward Island, and they were far more enjoyable spaced out during the meal than consumed en masse at the outset. Each was presented on a bed of rock salt and dressed with cucumber mignonette and fresh wasabi. Unfortunately, these were the highlight of the meal.

Stephanie began the meal with a bowl of the chilled sweet corn chowder with peekytoe crab. She described it, in a way that would have made Bernard Loiseau proud, as "the essence of corn." I chose scallop and potato "raviolis" - scallop slices sandwiched between thin slices of potato and sauced with truffles and mushrooms. The concept was interesting, but when the sauce was poured over the crisp potatoes, they disintegrated into a murky pool of starch. The flavor of the scallops, however, was spot on.

After another oyster, we split an heirloom tomoto salad that was both beautiful and delicious. I would recount the varieties included but the waiter didn't know when asked and he made no effort to find out.

One more oyster, and the main courses were served. Stephanie chose the bluenose grouper with lobster and crab dumplings in shellfish broth. The dumplings were superb, and the broth was delicate and flavorful, but the grouper was overcooked, chewy, and lacking flavor. Stephanie recommended leaving out the fish and serving the course as a "wonton soup." It would have been much better.

I followed the waiter's advice, usually a good choice, and selected the sockeye salmon with fingerling potatoes and lobster mushrooms. The fish was overcooked and the Chinese stirfry sauce was exceedingly oily. Perhaps most disappointingly, as it showed the utter disregard of the kitchen staff, were the actual pieces of fish I received. Instead of receiving a single thick fillet of salmon perched on top of the other ingredients, I was served two small cuts from the tail of the fish (the worst cut), toppled over the plate, and with an enormous gash in the crisp skin. The woman next to me ordered the same dish and received a far superior product. It is difficult to believe that a kitchen like this would care so little. Perhaps Chef McClain had switched his kitchen staff for the evening, because our fish tasted like it was prepared at a steakhouse.

If only I could stop this tale of woe here, but doing so would neglect the rather poor service that we received. The waiter, as mentioned, was kind enough to agree to our oyster request, but no effort was made to describe the dishes. At a restaurant of this caliber, one expects the waiter to remind the diners what they are eating and perhaps to offer a comment about the preparation. Here, on the other hand, we couldn't even find out what the tomatoes were when we asked. The food runner was polite, and he congratulated us on our wise choice of the oysters, but the bus boy was exceedingly gruff when he wasn't being entirely unresponsive. He cleared the plates with visible distain and crumbed only half of one of our place settings. Perhaps he was having a bad day, but this is not the kind of service I expect for a James Beard award winner, or of an Applebee's for that matter.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear this Chris and Stephanie. From a reputed restaurant, I too would expect an ensemble of only the finest ingredients, attention, and preparation.

...and on Stephanie's birthday no less.

when you have a chance please augment this posting with (hopefully) some positive notes regarding the wine served that evening...unless, of course, you've exhausted your positive commentary as it relates to this restaurant and it's James Beard Foundation awarded chef.

At any rate happy belated birthday Stephanie and I hope that the dinners prepared in your new home are far better.


Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience on my birthday dinner at Spring. The food was delicious, but the service was below par for any fine restaurant in Chicago.
I wish the server had recommended a different dish for my entree... I enjoyed my boyfriend's dish more than my own. The food was certainly wonderful, though.

I'm booked for Schwa on his birthday; I'm hoping it will be as anticipated (I had to book 2 months in advance).