There are exactly four bad seats at Nightwood. Anyone seated in the front dining room, along the open-kitchen countertop or at the intimate downstairs communal tables might never notice this pair of two-tops. But it was from the awkward vantage point of one of those tables, placed along a (reasonably broad) hallway, that I ate my first meal at this much-anticipated east Pilsen haunt from Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds, the owners of Logan Square’s Lula Cafe. And while I’ve never been “recognized” as a critic, my unfortunate seat at least confirmed my anonymity, a minor solace as I glanced at the welcoming assemblage of antique fixtures and modern furniture on both sides.
But once a brioche bread pudding appetizer showed up in front of me, I didn’t want to look elsewhere anyway. The rich square of baked brioche, flanked by meaty slices of ham and stray pieces of crunchy snap peas, was homey and inspired. On a subsequent visit (at a much nicer table), the room again took a backseat, this time to a trout “BLT”: a fried egg and smoked trout layered over thick slabs of bacon on a slice of that same sweet, light brioche. And after the desserts—an angelically delicate blueberry-studded cake, a perfectly smooth chocolate crema hiding buttery hazelnuts—I realized it was no coincidence that the standout savory dishes had featured pastry.
However memorable these dishes were, I’m hesitant to go on too much about them since the menu, executed by Lula vet Jason Vincent, changes almost nightly. And however disappointing it might be to find a favorite dish missing, the restaurant’s constant tweaking presents possibilities for plates that could use some work. Overall, the most successful dishes at Nightwood share two traits: First, that fresh-from-the-garden liveliness that’s garnered Lula its cultish status. (See, for instance, a cheery “stone soup” filled with bright lima beans and fingerling potatoes or a squash salad accented by crunchy stalks of purslane.) Second, a wood-grilled flavor that’s sure to be Nightwood’s distinction. The juicy half-chicken gives off the intoxicating aroma of spit-roasting; the woodsy scent of the cheeseburger (worth ordering for the crisp french fries alone) hints at the meat’s earthy flavor.
Still, no tinge of smoke could salvage the oversalted whole trout; nor did that grill do anything for a steak (served on the rare side of medium-rare, as was the cheeseburger), well-seasoned but paired with broccoli and mashed potatoes so uninspired I wondered whether the combination was supposed to be ironic. And then there are the gummy pastas: If the pappardelle and the raviolo (filled with runny egg yolk and ricotta) had been rolled out more thinly, perhaps the stripped-down simplicity of the preparations would have been a virtue. As served, these plates faltered.
And yet, the dishes’ hit-and-near-miss quality conveys not carelessness but versatility and creativity in the kitchen. It’s a work-in-progress, but it’s one I’m willing—and eager—to eat my way through, from any seat in the house.
By Julia Kramer