Course 1 was a beef tartare amuse, an adorably teeny bite of raw beef on a cracker. It wasn’t especially memorable, but it seemed like a promising start.
I’d never eaten James Toland’s food before he opened the Black Sheep, a mash-up of high-concept food and hipster atmosphere that’s not dissimilar to graham elliot, nor to a sort of high-gloss Schwa. Considering the only local restaurant recently on Toland’s résumé was a short stint at Lockwood at the Palmer House Hilton, I doubt many locals have. But damned if every food writer in Chicago didn’t know this guy’s name by the time the Black Sheep opened: For nearly a year, Toland used his blog to announce each decision as he made it (and then changed it), cycling through locations (Logan Square, then West Town), restaurant names (Gabba Gabba Hey, James Toland, finally the Black Sheep), tag lines (“the uncensored raw power that is American cuisine, albeit twisted and distorted for your entertainment” is the latest) and even partners, all the while piquing interest from the increasingly convergent contingents of foodies and musos with the promise that touring bands could eat at this forthcoming restaurant—whatever it’s called, wherever it is—for free.
So when I call that first course promising, I mean that literally: All the hype around Toland, all of his promises, seemed as if it might all bear truth.
But then came course 2: beet salad. I contend that the textures of a roasted beet and that of a marshmallow (even if its purported, if practically hidden, flavor is citrus) should never be eaten in the same bite.
And then course 3: a pile of sunflower sprouts large and uniform enough to constitute the antithesis of a good “tasting” menu dish, dotted with cubes of refrigerator-cold corn bread.
Course 4: a medley of mushrooms over a gray-brown smear of mushroom-walnut puree. It was at this moment that I ate a pickled morel, then decided I never want to eat a pickled morel again, then became ready to stop eating at the Black Sheep. But alas, I was in the middle of a tasting menu.
(“Do you like taster menus?” Rob Brydon asks Steve Coogan during one of their many mildly depressing meals in The Trip, the dark British TV series turned movie. “I do,” Brydon continues. “I think when they’re good, they’re really good. And when it’s not done well, it’s very frustrating.” Like most of what Brydon says, this statement could not be more banal. Yet after enduring a ten-course, $95 tasting menu at the Black Sheep, it struck me as truly profound.)
Course 5: strips of sautéed eel quizzically paired with orbs of sweet melon.
Course 6: a bland fillet of redfish, plated atop a disc of pork rillettes, innocent enough until the waiter poured an overwrought bacon-enriched hollandaise-like sauce all over it.
Course 7: a rectangle of overcooked, underseasoned sirloin paired with a chewy scallop—wait, did they really pour milky crème fraîche sauce over this piece of meat? They did.
Course 8: cubes of dry, mealy, again underseasoned lamb, seemingly the restaurant’s signature.
Course 9: the palate cleanser at last, a sangria-inspired sorbet.
Course 10 was a ribbon of chocolate ganache, sprinkled with the perfect amount of sea salt flakes, set on subtly smoky dulce de leche alongside a quenelle of chocolate ice cream and crumbles of rich chocolate cake. It’s the work of pastry chef Sarah Jordan, who came to the Black Sheep from Blackbird, and it’s among the best restaurant desserts you can eat in Chicago right now: a perfect balance of sweet and salty, craveable and sophisticated. But unless it comes with a $95 refund, it simply can’t be asked to compensate for the rest of the meal.
This is what is so baffling—not to mention frustrating—about the Black Sheep: There actually appears to be a good deal of talent here. Jordan’s root-beer sponge cake, which I had on a previous visit, was as well-executed as the chocolate dessert, if not quite as spellbinding. The servers were professional and knowledgeable. On both visits, I was impressed by the cocktails, which were the work of Michael Simon, who left his post as the beverage director and general manager after my last visit. In his drinks, adding housemade mint soda to a Hulk Smash or lemongrass froth to a Dark and Stormy didn’t come off as a flourish; instead, the tweaks enhanced the cocktails’ fresh, clean flavor profiles.
And even though the tasting menu was rife with execution errors and unappealing flavor combinations (and even though I encountered some of these problems twice, since the tasting menu repeated many dishes I’d ordered à la carte on my first visit), it’s hard not to respect Toland himself, or anyone with enough gumption to open a restaurant that doesn’t pander to the middle with a burger or to the trend cycle with a charcuterie plate. But perhaps the chef has a bit too much gumption. Because just like Toland’s aggressive pre-opening marketing, there’s one not-so-minor detail missing at the Black Sheep: the food.