It takes a lot of guts to end an eight-course meal with a bowl of dried vegetables,” said my dining companion at Smyth, a new West Loop restaurant. And she was right (although technically it was vegetable pate de fruits). Then again, the meal began with a small cup of funky maitake mushroom tea adorned with a bare twig. But don’t get the wrong idea. This tasting menu-only restaurant isn’t just about serving dishes that nudge—or push, as the case may be—diners out of their comfort zones; it’s also about serving food that’s delicious.
This twofer comes as no surprise since John Shields and Karen Urie Shields, the husband-and-wife chefs behind it, have some 30 years of culinary experience between them, including at Alinea, Tru and Charlie Trotter’s. It was at the last that John and Karen—he as sous chef, she as head pastry chef—first met. In 2008, they turned down an offer to open a Trotter restaurant in Las Vegas and instead headed to Smyth, a small county in Virginia, where their cooking at Town House and then Riverstead Inn earned them national acclaim as well as some valuable insight. “It allowed us to figure out who we were as young chefs and what drove us,” says Karen of their five years there.
At Smyth, the couple’s point of view permeates the 40-seat restaurant. It’s a beautiful open space filled with warm wood, soft lighting, gently faded rugs and midcentury-modern furniture. Even the restrooms get the personal touch with charming fish-adorned wallpaper, a subtle nod to John’s childhood in Florida. Pretty as the room is, though, your attention will quickly turn to the most wide-open open kitchen I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. Listen closely and you might hear John say, “Omaha!” as a reference to quarterback Peyton Manning and code to his chefs that he’s changing a dish midservice.
Change and adhering to the seasons are tenets at Smyth, both made more accessible via a relationship with a 20-acre Bourbonnais farm growing produce exclusively for the restaurant and for The Loyalist, the lounge downstairs where you’ll find interesting cocktails and a terrific cheeseburger among other tasty casual fare. While the birch twig in the amuse-bouche tea didn’t come from that farm, its notes of wintergreen mint say something about the time of year (the persimmons hanging to dry in the kitchen further drive home that point). It also sets the Japanese-leaning tone of the dishes yet to come, the harmonious flow of which is a joy to witness—and even better to eat. Be warned: Just as my two meals at Smyth featured radically different dishes, albeit with similar high-end ingredients, expect yours to as well.