Marisol’s inventive, fleeting menu from the chefs behind Lula Cafe lives up to its locale inside Chicago’s modern art museum.
You don’t get a glimpse of Marisol Escobar until the bill arrives, affixed to a black-and-white postcard depicting the late avant-garde French-Venezuelan sculptor (who was the first to contribute work to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art). But this restaurant’s namesake is homaged throughout the menu—in a cheeky ’70s-style salad dressing and a steak sandwich (the artist loved late-night steak and eggs).
She also typifies a creative freedom that permeates chef Jason Hammel and chef de cuisine Sarah Rinkavage’s wide-ranging menu, in which fleeting produce serves as both the inspiration and medium.
The MCA’s cool glow spilled onto the wet pavement as my dates and I arrived on a soggy Thursday evening. Housed on the ground floor just inside a street-level entrance, Marisol is partitioned off only a third of the way to the ceiling by wooden booths, creating a disconcertingly exposed feeling of dining in a lobby.
Walking in, your eyes are immediately drawn left, to British artist Chris Ofili’s magnetic figurative mural overlooking the enclosed private dining room. Its brilliant jewel tones are echoed in the chairs, benches and couches scattered throughout the mostly grayscale dining room, where Ofili has also etched abstract flora on the windows and walls. Marisol is the centerpiece of a $16 million renovation that aims to make the MCA more accessible. (A companion counter-service café called The Street peddles coffee and pastries.)
I tend to find cocktails too bold for food, but Brian Case’s funky, low-proof list was palate-tickling and soft enough to complement our first two courses. The expertly balanced Sidney J melds figgy, cave-aged moscatel sherry and vegetal reposado tequila; a sweet orange peel is the finishing touch. Man-date’s Found in Photo was clean and harmonious, marrying botanical Old Tom gin with jammy Grand Byrrh (a wine-based aperitif) and lemon rind.
At first, you might think the culinary minds behind cozy, veggie-loving Lula Cafe in Logan Square an odd choice to helm this showier Streeterville concept. Lula is most often associated with launching Chicago’s farm-to-table movement, but the duo behind this 18-year-old spot has been quietly moving the needle on resourcefulness and the creative potential of plants. At Marisol, they approach ingredients, technique and presentation with a similar artistic sensibility.
A symbolist chilled octopus appetizer mimicked boquerones (Spanish vinegared anchovies). Sturdy tentacles are rendered silky and tender from a complex process of braising, vinegar-curing, then marinating in aromatic oil. The addictive morsels are arranged atop mounds of briny caper aioli and streaks of lemon oil and served alongside saffron chips dusted with spices and nutritional yeast.
“I recognize this squash from Lula,” Man-date noted as we dug into bright-orange crescents of roasted winter squash whose rich hue can be credited in part to a sherry vinaigrette made with spicy, hearty n’duja. The sweet, heady dish met its match in a 2014 Sikele Gerecanico, a lightly tannic Sicilian orange wine redolent of pear and apple.
We didn’t agree on everything, however. Ladydate thought a shrimp dish cooked in walnut oil and neatly arranged with slivers of bitter endive would have been more impactful served chilled. I liked it warm—rounded from brown butter and thyme, offset with bright lemon zest. “I want more acid,” Man-date deadpanned.
A rectangular pear semifreddo from pastry chef Alison Cates was decidedly less controversial—cloud-like, spiced ice cream is laced with pear butter and packed atop crushed shortbread before it’s finished off with fermented cherry sauce and cubes of poached pear.
Still, we savored and contemplated it like we had all the others, guessing at the potential existence of undetectable ingredients—“Where are the chestnuts?” (ground into flour and made into shortbread)—and wondering why the cranberries emanated umami (from fermenting in honey).
Perhaps we did so because we knew it was answerable to a certain column. Or maybe eating this inventive meal inside a temple to modern art begs for deeper reflection. Isn’t that what art is all about?
Atmosphere: Marisol’s oft-changing, inventive menu befits its locale at the celebrated Museum of Contemporary Art.
What to eat: This shareable, veg-loving menu changes frequently, though the chilled octopus with saffron chips, fried quail and winter squash with n’duja vinaigrette are musts. One or two small plates and one large dish per person should more than satisfy.
What to drink: Low-octane cocktails, like the earthy Sidney J, are complemented by one of the city’s best aperitivo and vermouth selections. Natural wines are similarly light and food-friendly.
Where to sit: If you can, grab a table in the back corner, which feels more like you’re inside a restaurant than museum lobby.
205 E Pearson St
|Cross street:||N Miles Van Der Rohe Way|
|Opening hours:||Tue–Sat 5:30pm–10pm|
|Transport:||Bus: 125, 157|
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