I’d barely spent 30 seconds inside of Esmé before a server asked if I’d like a glass of champagne.
“Complimentary,” she specified, ushering my date and I toward a standing table where we’d kickstart the evening’s tasting menu with a series of canapes. A minute later we stood peering over our first bite, dubbed the “cheeto.” Molded with a custom grain extruder machine, the crisp little corn puff—only loosely evocative of its Frito-Lay namesake, though just as addictive—arrived dusted with an umami sprinkling of mushroom powder. Consider, for a moment, the whimsy of drinking champagne and eating a single fancy Cheeto: It would be a touch too on the nose if it weren’t so delicious.
Located on a well-to-do corner in Lincoln Park, Esmé is the first solo restaurant from chef Jenner Tomaska (Next) and his wife/business partner Katrina Bravo. It’s billed as a reimagined take on fine dining—one that, aside from the rarefied food on the table, is driven by art and philanthropy—and a sort of love letter to the community-building power of art. Taking a lead from their shared mentor (the similarly community-minded Virtue chef Erick Williams) Tomaska and Bravo plan to offer collaborative, artist-inspired dinners and, as the restaurant’s website reads, for philanthropy and art to be “integrated into the foundation of the experience, an expression of [Tomaska and Bravo’s] shared vision for the community-focused restaurant.”
What does it mean for art to be integrated into the dining experience, you ask? First, the space itself—white-walled and sophisticated, with towering windows and asymmetrical light fixtures—has the same feel as a gallery, both for its design sensibilities and the rotating displays of art on the walls. Huge, gauzy watercolors from Danielle Klinenberg, the restaurant’s first exhibiting artist, hang behind tables for admiration (and for purchase, if the mood strikes).
Tomaska and Bravo’s attention to art extends just as readily to the table, where each course is plated on a collection of gorgeous, frequently baffling serving pieces sourced from sculptors across the country. The second portion of canapes came staggered atop a tray of shale rock, golden wire flowers twisting above bites of roe-topped bombardinos and skewered lion’s mane mushroom. Later, in a particularly inspired presentation, a pork rib dish slathered with Thai banana caramel and chiccarón was shaped around a ceramic bone. There’s some day-by-day variation here, too: During one course, a pebble-skinned futsu pumpkin served as a bowl for cabbage and uni; on top, a burnt hay broth, less barn-like and more aromatic than it sounds, was poured from a hollow gourd.
Then there's the artistic quality of the food. As hinted by the initial Cheeto-inspired dish, Tomaska’s menu steers clear of any staid white tablecloth dining conventions. A highlight of my dinner—sweet potato ice cream in peanut miso caramel and celery hot sauce and crowned with a salty slick of Osetra caviar—landed on the table not for dessert but directly following the canapes course.
Oh, and remember those artist dinners? An upcoming series highlighting Chicago photographer Paul Octavious, whose work will also be displayed, is slated for early next year, and the restaurant is planning various philanthropic events as well (details for which are still in the works—fair enough, given that it opened in September). Fine dining remains a luxury accessible to relatively few, but Esmé’s nascent community-building efforts, along with some truly special food, make for a more-than-welcome addition to Chicago’s dining scene.
The vibe: I’ve never been to a Scandinavian art gallery, but I imagine it would look a little like this—all clean lines, blonde wood flooring, white walls and abstract art. Side note: The bathrooms, stocked with high-end toiletries (like Tatcha blotting papers) and scented with custom Le Labo candles, have a luxe feel.
The food: A 12- to 15-course, ever-evolving tasting menu with oddball inclinations, like the superlative sweet potato ice cream topped with peanut miso caramel, celery hot sauce and a dollop of caviar (likely to remain one of the few staples on the menu, I’m told).
The drink: Operations manager/beverage director Tia Barrett’s wine list spotlights women and BIPOC producers, with wine pairings ranging from $150–$250 per person.
Time Out tip: Not ready to commit to a full tasting menu? Swing by the newly-opened Bar Esmé (they take walk-ins) for more modestly priced snacks, including a long, twisty version of the Cheeto canape.