Taking Flight

Lisa Shames | October 3, 2016 | Feature Features National

Think the team behind Alinea can't do casual? Roister, with its lively vibe, laid-back service and terrific food, says otherwise.
FOWL PLAY Chamomile flowers adorn Roister's whole chicken.

Regardless of your lukewarm thoughts on ordering chicken when dining out, ignore them at Roister. The whole bird at this West Loop restaurant is brined for 24 hours in chamomile sweet tea and served three ways: Poached, juicy breasts get roasted in the wood-burning hearth until the skin is crispy; confited wings and legs are transformed into a creamy chicken salad topped with nutty sunflower petals; and boneless thighs take a dip in buttermilk and a flour mixture before a dunk in the deep fryer. With or without the terrific white gravy and sunchoke hot sauce served on the side, the end result is a trifecta of chicken goodness.
Glorified picnic food isn’t what you’d expect from the guys behind Michelin three-starred Alinea, but that’s the point. Rather than duplicate the fine-dining experience that has received just about every accolade there is, partners Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, along with Executive Chef Andrew Brochu, went in a much different direction.

The bustling open kitchen in the center of the dining room is your first clue they’re on a different path. Your Metallica T-shirt-clad server is another, as is the amuse-bouche of a white rum shot infused with flavors of pineapple and green tea. Then there’s the soundtrack, ranging from Guns N’ Roses to Tears for Fears with some country and R&B thrown in for good measure.

If you’re still not convinced, perhaps the cloth pouch containing multiple pieces of silverware and held closed with a set of chopsticks will do the trick. “Some diners take everything out and set it up like they’re in a fine-dining restaurant,” says Brochu, “while others take out one piece at a time.” Either way, it provides entertainment for the chefs, which only seems fair since diners are having just as much fun watching them. (If you’re into that kind of thing, the counter seats surrounding the open kitchen offer the best views.)

While there are plenty of differences between the two restaurants, there are similarities too. As at Alinea, each dish at Roister fills the mind with questions. Here at the younger sibling, though, it’s less about the technical wizardry going on in the kitchen and more about wanting to know how they’re able to make simple-sounding dishes so delicious.

Take, for instance, the tomato bread, one of the smaller plates on the compact menu in which the meant-to-be-shared dishes get larger as you scroll down. (A multicourse chef’s menu, $85 to $95, served family-style is offered downstairs in the prep kitchen area.) How good could bread topped with mayo, shallots, pecan oil and tomatoes be? Really, really good, as it turns out. While inspired by the basic white bread tomato sandwiches Brochu ate while growing up in the South, the ingredients are individually prepared with the utmost respect, drawing out the most flavor from each.

Odds are that exact dish will have been switched out for a more seasonal toast on your visit, but fortunately the popularity of the buttered pipe pasta and clams ensures it’s a keeper. Like much of the food at Roister, it started with a simple idea—for this one, Italian garganelli and clams—and then Brochu and his chefs ran with it. Here, that means there’s a hint of Asia (wasabi tobiko) and French technique (green chili ragout). Fragrant mint acts as a calling card, giving diners a preview of how wonderful the dish is going to be even before the first bite.

Brochu returns to the South for aged cheddar rillettes, his riff on pimiento cheese. “I thought it would be fun if we served that dish but took away all the low-brow Southern components and added in some higher-end things,” he says. Good idea. Aged cheddar and Parmesan work well together, even better when a truffle vinaigrette is involved. Spread it on fry bread—watch it being made to order at the frying station—which arrives warm and dusted with sugar and salt.

In keeping with the casual slant of the restaurant, Achatz wanted to include their take on french fries. Here, the three-day prep process, including two visits to the deep-fryer, results in crispy Yukon wedges topped with tofu mayonnaise and a dusting of bonito flakes that perform that little dance they’re inclined to do. I can’t imagine another group of chefs that could make fries a form of entertainment as well as delicious.

But Roister isn’t just about making comfort food fancy. There’s lovely crudo—on one visit, hamachi garnished with pickled bananas, coconut cream and puffed rice—smoked oysters and A5 Japanese wagyu adorned with sea urchin butter too.

Desserts only number three, including a decadent foie gras chocolate candy bar of sorts that competes with the chicken when it comes to Instagram postings. The beverage menu is equally simplified with a handful of wines and beers by the glass, as well as a half-dozen cocktails. I’m partial to the Roister Old Fashioned, tricked out with oloroso sherry, Laird’s apple brandy and brown butter, which, tasty as it was, somehow managed to last through my entire meal. I guess my attention was focused elsewhere.


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