Three Stars for Jessica Largey’s New Menu at Intro

April 8, 2016

Intro review: Two-chef format adds plenty of options for diners By Phil Vettel Change has come to Intro, which launched in 2015 with the bold notion of bringing in a quarterly "chef in residence" to run the dining room, working with a support team that most chefs can only dream of. The dream remains the same — Jessica Largey, the reigning James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef, has been resident chef since Valentine's Day — but some tweaks are in place. For one, there is now a permanent chef (Stephen Gillanders, the fourth and last of Intro's 2015 chefs) to collaborate with the visiting chef. The menu has gone almost completely a la carte, currently offering a mix of Gillanders' and Largey's dishes (color-coded for clarity; customers easily can create de facto tastings on their own).

"One of our issues was that people would visit and say, 'Everything was great; see you in three months,'" said Gillanders. "There was a strong desire to make the restaurant into a place where people would know what to expect and would return more often. People who just want a glass of Champagne and a salad before a show can do that now, but we're still providing that opportunity for up-and-coming talent to do their thing."
It's actually fun, scouring the checkerboard menu and deciding which black (Gillanders) and/or red (Largey) dishes to sample. There are some marvelous Gillanders plates, notably white shrimp in a habanero-citrus marinade dotted with crunchy pepitas and bearing a whiff of mint, and ruby-red hanger steak with a seared-porcini crust and a remarkably complex chimichurri sauce. Crispy chicken thigh, over black lentils and under frisee with abundant tarragon seasoning, is like stepping into a bistro; and Gillanders employs caraway to make his gougeres, which function as the restaurant's bread service, fun and memorable. I'll spend more time on Largey's contributions, as she'll be around for only a few more weeks. Fermented carrots add crunch and umami to steak tartare, ringed with olive crackers; the abalone toast is piled so high with abalone (tossed in black vinegar and slathered with brown-butter aioli), shiitake mushrooms and charred, yuzu-doused cucumber, it's like some sort of Bruschetta Gone Wild. And while everybody's got a beet salad out there, Largey's version, which includes wafer-thin daikon, Buddha's hand citrus and smoked avocado cream, is the prettiest and brightest presentation I've seen in quite a while. Sea scallops are boldly caramelized and topped with dots of caper aioli, surrounded by a mix of fried potatoes, vivid-green chervil soubise and tangles of spaghetti that prove to be shredded kohlrabi. Parmesan dumplings, in a foamy sauce containing peas, green garlic and pistachio, practically scream spring. And I'll offer some nice-knowing-you praise (because the dish has since been retired) for the roasted romanesco, a greenish cauliflower that offers crunchy texture and delicate flavor, bedecked with daikon slices (some upright in clouds of cauliflower puree) and brightened by sweet-tart kumquats. Largey's contribution to the dessert menu is a lovely one: a citrus soda float, presented in a tumbler with blood-orange marmalade and sesame ice cream, an intriguing blend of sugars. Gillanders offers a dark and rich chocolate tart with chocolate fondue and tiny puddles of cherry chantilly cream and cassis syrup, and you can't go wrong with the sorbet assortment, which on one visit provided scoops of mango, red wine and lemon. Largey, sadly for us, will head to Los Angeles to open a restaurant (already in the construction phase) in late 2016. If you're scoring at home, that means that three of Intro's five chefs have remained in Chicago. Besides Gillanders, Aaron Martinez is running Porcellino, the restaurant that replaced Paris Club in River North; and C.J. Jacobson recently announced that he'll be opening Ema (in partnership with Lettuce) this summer. (Erik Anderson is working to bring Brut to life in Minneapolis.) Largey's tenure lasts through May 8, which means that her tour of duty will have included Valentine's Day, Easter and Mother's Day, three of the most hellish dates on the restaurant calendar. I don't know what the chef's memories of Chicago will be, but "boring" surely won't be one of them.