September 22, 2010

The Flame Still Burns Bright at Naha (for the most part!)

In New York, what's hot remains that way for approximately as long as Britney Spears stays married. Chicago's relationship with its hot spots, though, is decidedly more long term. Sure, the must-try new restaurants of the early 2000s—MK, Blackbird, and Naha—may not inspire the sort of excitement they did when their doors first opened, but they still enjoy a loyal following.

I wouldn't laud such loyalty if it weren't well-deserved. There's nothing worse than clinging to a relationship long after the magic has died. Yet Naha remains both filling and fulfilling after all these years. That's at least partly because it's managed to stay fresh inside the kitchen and out.

On the latter score, Naha's clean-lined, vaguely Zen-like, formal-without-really-feeling-like-it space is still modern, but warmly so. More importantly, chef (and Chicago native) Carrie Nahabedian's seasonal, mostly Mediterranean-inspired cuisine largely struck the right notes, though at times I thought there could be fewer of them.

Take the scallop appetizer, for instance. I could barely detect the promised vanilla bean flavor, maybe because it couldn't compete with the accompanying endive, hearts of palm, musk and watermelons. That said, the scallops were thick, lightly sweet, and perfectly cooked. And had the vanilla flavor been more pronounced, it might have become cloying, an outcome that would've been much worse.

Where the complexity worked especially well was in my main course dish. The squab, a Naha specialty, showcased Nahabedian's affinity for Middle Eastern flavors. Served along with raisins, dates, and a noodle cake--a sort of noodle patty crisped on the outside--the squab came cooked a rosy medium rare along with a melt-in-my-mouth piece of foie gras (I'm hesitant to say that it was so good it shouldn't be legal, but I don't want to give any Chicago pols any ideas. Banning it once was enough.) My favorite element of the entire dish was the rose, licorice, gooseberry, and anise sauce coating the plate. I'm not sure anyone could distinguish between its many different components--what is gooseberry anyway?--but that just may be the point: The sum of the flavors are much greater than the parts.

My boyfriend tried the Arctic char. I won't say too much about it since I got just a bite, but I can't blame him for keeping the lion's share to himself. Ordinarily I'm not a big fan of char, which usually makes me think I'm eating salmon's bastard child. Yet at Naha, it was flaky, moist, and had a flavor profile of its own.

Dessert, however, was a big disappointment. I anticipated the pain perdu, or French toast, would arrive moist and eggy but it was little more than a browned piece of brioche. And sadly, the strawberry topping was little better than one might get at the IHOP. At $14, that may have been the most expensive piece of toast I've ever had. (Our experience may be an anomaly, though. Flaky Pastry has fared much better, and she's a far higher authority on dessert than me).

Naha surely isn't for penny pinchers. The average entrée hovers near $40, and dessert is $14 no matter what you order. (Prices for the appetizers are similarly steep. A simple sounding beet salad clocked in at $17.) I may have found those price tags are easier to stomach thanks to Naha's well-crafted cocktails. Those cost me too, but even in the best of relationships, you sometimes need a stiff drink.

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