The loss of Lulu’s Dim Sum still stings.
However, the blow has been softened by the appearance of Boltwood in its stead—a really good restaurant that could prove unstoppable once it hits its stride.
Boltwood is the name of the freshman wing (and favorite cafeteria) at Evanston Township High School, the alma mater of Chef Brian Huston. He has returned to Evanston after a six-year gig as Chef de Cuisine of The Publican in Chicago; this time, it’s in partnership with John Kim of popular local hangout The Brothers K Coffeehouse, as well as his own brother, Brady Huston, and attorney Seth Kaplan.
Not surprisingly, Boltwood has been booked and busy since its June opening. Huston’s reputation as a gifted and inventive chef has definitely preceded him; the buzz has been tremendous, landing them in the pole position on Chicago Magazine’s August “Hot List,” an enviable spot—especially for a suburban restaurant.
The buzz inside the restaurant has been a little too big, at least in terms of noise. The décor is sparse and on the modern side, and there are plenty of hard surfaces, including a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows on Davis Street. For the first month of business—including my visits—this meant a nearly deafening roar, with people shouting across the tables to be heard.
They’ve taken a thoughtful approach to the problem, opting for a long-term rather than slapdash solution. They’ve hired a carpenter to create sound absorbent, insulated upholstered panels and attach them to the ceiling. That’s a big plus.
I’m betting that Boltwood will quickly become a cocktail destination given the quality of the handcrafted beverages we sampled, including the Evanston Sazerac (made with Rittenhouse Rye, demarara sugar, absinthe and local FEW Spirits Malort) and the refreshing Herb Collins (City of London Gin, house-made blackberry-rosemary syrup, and soda water), both $10. Craft beers (including Evanston’s own Temperance Beer) are available on tap as well as by bottle and can. The wine list is not lengthy, but well chosen with a nice range of bottles under $50 (as well as a few above).
Kim runs the front of the house with an easy smile and a desire to please. His affable presence gives a friendly, unpretentious feel to this suburban restaurant with urban aspirations.
Certainly the farm-to-table menu is very of the moment, with many dishes perfect for table sharing. The kitchen is baking its own tasty, chewy sourdough wheat bread, which also shows up in the Fava Bean Toast ($10), two slices laden with mashed fava beans, feta cheese, radish slices and spicy mizuna leaves. The toast could have been crispier for better textural contrast, but it was such a market-fresh dish.
That the ex-Publican chef is a whiz with piggies is not a surprise, but the Italian Sausage ($14) with piquillo pepper and eggplant sofrito was a plump and juicy wonder. And the simple but effective batons of Grilled La Quercia Prosciutto-Wrapped Brun-uusto Cheese ($14) were simply addictive (they really didn’t need the drizzle of olive oil; they were rich enough), especially when paired with a sweet-and-sour cherry aigre-doux. These are not the same “Cheese Stix” served at the original Boltwood cafeteria, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
The veggie side-dish section proved fertile ground. Don’t miss the outstanding Crispy Potatoes ($7) with garlic schmaltz (Yiddish for chicken fat), sinfully yummy. As for the Kale Chopped Salad ($8): yes, I know it’s ubiquitous, but this was a fresh take, with carrots, plump golden raisins and an Asian-accented peanut vinaigrette. We loved the Gnudi ($14) preparation of brown butter, spring peas, chopped peapods, torn mint and shards of salty Pecorino, although truthfully the texture was more gnocchi than gnudi.
Huston has a deft hand with Grilled Squid ($14), served here with lentils, a tangle of shaved fennel, and arugula. The squid was fork-tender and deeply flavorful. Supposedly the Sand Dabs ($18) are his favorite fish, and tables around us seemed to love it, but unfortunately, they ran out by 7:15 p.m. The Whole Sea Bass ($36) is plenty for two or three to pick at; it’s difficult to dissect but well worth the effort. On one visit, it was stuffed with summer-squash escabeche and pumpkin seeds, although the preparation has since changed.
The Grilled Skirt Steak ($21) was another umami-filled winner, courtesy of the mushroom conserva, grilled onions and romesco sauce. Beefy and delicious.
Desserts could use some attention, although they’ve mastered the ice cream. Try a scoop of the Roasted Chicory and Dandelion Ice Cream ($6) with house-made butter cookies (yum!), or concentrate on the buttermilk ice cream gilding the Blueberry Cornmeal Cobbler ($8), which could’ve done with a bit less dry biscuit and more of the sweet, juicy blueberry concoction beneath. The Black Magic Cake ($8) lacked sparkle, but the Cheese Selection ($5 each/3 for $12), three lovely Midwest cheeses with house-made cracker crisps and local honey, more than made up for it.
Coffee is predictably delicious, given the Brothers K connection. They use a deep, dark blend from Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters (one of few non-local products here), and it’s available iced ($4), hot ($3), or as a Tableside Coffee Service for two ($12).
The food and service at Boltwood is a far cry from that of its cafeteria namesake. Evanston welcomes Huston back with open arms.
4 out of 5 stars (A-)