By now, I’m used to pop-up dinners. I’m used to places like Next and Sixteen, where there’s several themes a year executed by the same kitchen. But a restaurant where not just the menu, but also the chef, beverage list and theme change every three to four months? That’s totally new.
When L2O closed at the end of 2014, Lettuce Entertain You group announced that it would reopen in February as Intro, a restaurant with rotating chefs who would develop the concept for the restaurant and have a financial partnership. While the idea is new to Chicago, there’s a precedent for rotating chef restaurants—The Table By in Madrid, Ikarus in Salzburg and, briefly, Fifty Seven in Los Angeles, which closed after its second chef.
C.J. Jacobson, Intro’s debut chef, sets a very high bar. He runs Girasol in Studio City, California, and is also famous for being on Top Chef Miami and winning Top Chef Duels in 2014. He’s a smart choice, not just because his food is good—people flock to Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard’s restaurants, why wouldn’t they beeline to see another Top Chef victor? If the full dining room on my visit was any indication, people are. And with just two months left on Jacobson’s run, if they haven’t yet, they need to get on it—he's only here through the end of April.
Jacobson describes his cuisine at both Girasol and Intro as “rustic-refined,” with local and foraged ingredients. At Intro, he wants to merge Midwestern and California ingredients, the latter of which dominates the opening number—curls of tender fluke with avocado and thin slices of radish, bathing in Douglas fir emulsion. It was bright and refreshing, and my dining companion, a former Californian, said: “This is California food.”
It was much lighter than what was to come, but it was a statement: This is where Jacobson came from and just barely hinted at what he could do with Midwestern ingredients and flavors, later featured more prominently in a bowl of riced potatoes, with crisp potato skin and chicken skin, plus funky seaweed and mugwort. Warming, creamy and rich, the taste is as Midwestern as they come, but the textural interplay elevates it.
But you might also be able to get it affordably—Intro is the first Lettuce Entertain You restaurant to use Tock, Nick Kokonas’s ticketing system. Tickets range from $65-$95, depending on day and time, and if you can get this menu for $65, it’s a steal. There are five courses, and you can add on beverages a la carte (like a fizzy beet and apple juice cocktail). There’s also a $30 juice pairing from the West Loop’s Harvest Juicery and $30 and $50 beverage pairings, which include Forbidden Root’s Shady Character porter. On my visit, there was an additional course, Hazzard Free Farm grits, with perigord truffles, nubs of cheese, pickled pomegranate seeds and popcorn. It’s $40, but big enough for two, and you can smell the truffles from across the dining room.
The parade of delicious dishes continued—a soulful “ramen” made with rutabaga “noodles” soaking in a meaty and savory oxtail broth, steeped in foraged mushrooms; for dessert, rich chocolate ice cream, creamy sunflower seed butter, and juniper and kombucha snow showered on top; a tiny dish of hay ice cream, with poached cherries, crispy lentils and blackberry vinegar. It was an unusual combination that Jacobson, an engaging and constant presence in the dining room, said he was already considering swapping out. He shouldn’t, because it’s a terrific dish, but it’s also a reminder that he won’t be at Intro for long.