The underground-dining world has become quite the fertile breeding ground for impressive restaurants; the stellar Elizabeth, the award-winning Fat Rice and Bonsoiree (the last sadly gone but dazzling in its day) all have their roots in underground dining. And now there is 42 Grams, which opened in January in Uptown.
Sous Rising was the underground restaurant that gave the husband-wife team of Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh their start; when they went legit, so to speak, the name changed to 42 Grams. It stems from the notion (based on a doctor's research in 1907) that the soul weighs 21 grams; thus 42 Grams represents two souls, united.
And that's sort of how the dining experience plays out here. There are assistant chefs and assistant servers, but the focus is on Bickelhaupt and his progressive cooking, and Welsh, the host presence who gives voice to each dish her husband sends out.
Dinner is exceptionally intimate. There are but two areas, a communal table with 10 chairs and an eight-seat stainless-steel counter that looks directly at Bickelhaupt and his crew. The seatings are usually at 6 p.m. for the counter and 8:30 for the table. The two might overlap slightly, but for the most part, it's as though 42 Grams is hosting two dinner parties each night. (On some nights, the restaurant will feature a 10 p.m. counter seating as well.)
Reservations are offered via prepaid tickets, a bit of a mini-trend in Chicago (see sidebar). The restaurant's website is easy to maneuver (usually) and includes a section of "last minute" seats if you're hoping to get in right away.
Dinner, tax and gratuity cost about $200; 42 Grams is BYO, so the wine is up to you. Whatever you might bring, the wine will be handled properly; 42 Grams stocks beautiful stemware, and servers present and pour (and decant, when appropriate) with care. A few days ahead of your arrival, the restaurant emails red, white and even dessert wine suggestions, so first-timers won't be flying blind.
You may, however, be eating blind, at least a little bit. There's no menu at first; even the number of courses isn't revealed. "But you will get a menu at the end," Welsh announces, "so you don't have to memorize everything." As each dish is presented, Welsh delivers pithy, usually witty remarks regarding what's in front of you, and how best to eat it. (With Bickelhaupt's plates, the latter isn't always obvious, so Welsh's comments are invaluable as well as entertaining.)
It would be too extreme to describe Bickelhaupt's food as molecular, but he shows a fondness for sous-vide cooking, gelatinized liquids, solids rendered as powders and that sort of thing. A bit of trompe l'oeil is waiting as you arrive; the floral arrangements lining the counter (or table) contain crispy bits of Vidalia parchment and flax-tapioca chips as a shareable bread course (breaking bread and breaking the ice simultaneously).
Next up is a cocktail, of sorts; the Juniper Jump consists of a clear cube of gin gelee ("the Jell-O shot you couldn't afford in college," in Welsh's words), frozen rose water "snow," powdered hibiscus and a vivid green sphere of cucumber and lime juice. You essentially mix the "cocktail" in your mouth, keeping in mind that the ready-to-burst liquid sphere is an all-or-nothing proposition.
More than a dozen tastes are yet to come; standouts include a potato soup so rich in flavor it's like drinking liquefied fingerlings (a large dollop of caviar gives this dish a touch of luxury); a seafood salute to the late Charlie Trotter (in whose restaurant Bickelhaupt got his start) combining salmon nigiri with trout roe, powdered plankton and a few sips of dashi broth; and a vividly colored salad of beet macaron (never has the beet presence in a salad been so delicate) with mixed lettuces, microgreens, fromage blanc and a quail yolk surrounded by an "egg white" of roasted shallot vinaigrette.
Though 42 Grams works hard to demystify its dishes, Bickelhaupt shows a fondness for ingredients that challenge in other ways. The current menu includes sea urchin, sweetbreads and foie gras — acquired tastes that even some experienced diners have yet to embrace. (Welsh boldly assures guests that "this will be the best uni (urchin) of your life," and given the quality of the sea urchin — the buttery creaminess I expected, but the just-plucked freshness was a revelation — I'm disinclined to argue.)
The concluding courses show more of Bickelhaupt's playful side. There is a single-bite sweet, a white chocolate ball filled with kalamansi (Asian citrus) and topped with cherry blossom; a seemingly straightforward dark chocolate cremeux with crumbled pretzel and bourbon-maple ice cream (the surprises are the glassy sheet of blood orange and bits of hyssop that taste like bubble gum); and a cheese course consisting of pecorino foam and pecorino fondue, which you scoop with a pecorino crisp that Welsh likens to the "world's most sophisticated Cheeto."
The meal concludes with cappuccino; I won't reveal the surprise, except to say it is a fitting conclusion to a meal that began with a deconstructed cocktail.
It is difficult to know how good a restaurant can be based on one menu, even though I visited twice. But knowing that Bickelhaupt plans to break out a completely new menu in the next few weeks, I'm less worried about whether the chef can repeat his magic, and more eager to see what he'll do with ramps, morels and the like. That's a good sign.
4662 N. Broadway
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Wednesday through Sunday
Prices: Dinner with tax and tip: $203.68