Restaurant review by Amy Cavanaugh
When a chef carves out a reputation at a great restaurant, it can be hard to dine at his or her new spot without comparing it to the chef's former place. For Brian Huston, who just opened Boltwood with John Kim of Brothers K Coffee House, that point of comparison is the Publican, where he was chef de cuisine for six years and made it a must-visit restaurant (it was also the very first restaurant I went to on my first trip to Chicago). So let’s compare. Does Boltwood have communal dining? Yes. Oysters? Yes. (Though who doesn’t offer oysters these days?) A menu divided into “meat” and “vegetable” sections? Yup.
Beyond that, Boltwood is entirely its own restaurant. It's more casual than the Publican and the food feels more straightforward. Located in Evanston, where Huston and Kim both live, it’s the latest of a string of openings that’s upping the dining scene in the suburb. And the neighborhood is responding: On a recent Friday night, the restaurant was absolutely packed with a mix of large groups and dates. When you add in the open kitchen that spans the length of the back wall, the din is overwhelming. “We’re going to be insulating the ceiling to help with noise,” the server apologized to the table next to us.
While the noise may be in-your-face, everything else about Boltwood is restrained. It can sometimes feel like the restaurant is playing it too safe, especially since we know what Huston is capable of. There’s a kale salad, a beet salad and hanger steak, three hallmarks of any restaurant opening today. The space feels generic—it’s dim, with a mix of mismatched artwork and huge windows. A side dish of shaved summer squash, zucchini, radishes and sorrel is fine but boring and needs some zip. A blackberry-rosemary gin drink is weak and watery.
But in the grand scheme of a meal at Boltwood, these are minor quibbles, because there is so much more to like. I like the dense slices of housemade bread with soft butter speckled with salt. I like the grilled brun-uusto, a Wisconsin version of a Scandinavian cheese, which Huston slices into long strips, grills and serves with La Quercia ham, bitter greens, sweet cherries and mint. It’s under the “bar snack” section and exactly the salty-sweet, satisfying sort of thing I want to eat with a drink like the Evanston sazerac, which deepens the classic with Few malört.
If your cocktail tastes run less bitter, try the tequila-mezcal-grapefruit-Campari cocktail, which is easy drinking but complex. I also like the fried lake perch, served with potatoes, hard-boiled egg and mustard vinaigrette—basically an elevated potato salad. And I like how the menu, divided into "bar snacks," "meat and fish" and "vegetables," files the most dishes under the final category. It’s nice to see a restaurant offer many vegetarian-friendly dishes, particularly when one is a lovely fritto misto, with fried broccoli, squash, eggplant and other vegetables with a hint of sesame vinaigrette. And for dessert, I like the carrot cake, a three-layer cake gilded with a light whipped cream cheese and sprinkled with marcona almonds.
These were nice but it was the last savory dish I had at Boltwood that’s the kind of thing that will keep people coming back. The half-chicken and shrimp is a bowl packed with chicken falling off the bone, three head-on shrimp, green beans, piquillo peppers and a shallow broth with chorizo and paprika—it’s spicy and just the sort of dish you want to keep digging into and not stop. The preparation has already changed, because the menu changes daily. That keeps things fresh, but it also gives me an excuse to stop in to see what else Huston has cooked up.