One our favorite Chicago experiences was discovering the goodness that is Chef Grant Achatz' newest creation--his casual, New American themed restaurant Roister. For those of you who may not be familiar with Chef Achatz, he's the superstar chef behind 3 Michelin star rated Alinea (one of the 50 best restaurants in the world), and high-end craft cocktail bar The Aviary (one of the 50 best bars in the world). He worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in California, and with Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain. All three qualify as some of the world's best chefs.
Unlike Alinea--where dinner may span 20+ courses, and last 3+ hours, Roister is decidedly less formal. There is a central kitchen with an enormous wood-burning hearth in the center of the restaurant, with bar seating on 3 sides. In all reality, most of the restaurant's patrons will end up with a "Chef's Table" experience. With concrete floors and bare wood tables, the atmosphere is lively, noisy, and decidedly fun. While the atmosphere certainly doesn't take itself too seriously, the food certainly should be taken extremely seriously. Although Roister is a newer restaurant, it recently earned its first Michelin star, and was named one of the best new restaurants in America by Esquire. We liked Roister so much, we went back two nights in a row (including on the way to the airport).
Now, a note on Roister's wine and cocktail list: it's unpretentious, relatively inexpensive, and high quality. Unlike our other Chicago dining experiences, we actually both went with their house Pinot by the glass (served on tap, mind you). It was super high-quality, delicious, and worked extremely well with the varied course options we chose throughout the night. Served in a simple highball glass, it just seemed to go perfectly with the entire experience. Not pretentious. Just tasty.
Now, for the food. On our first night at Roister, we started with the aged cheddar rillettes, which had black truffle, and cauliflower mixed in, and came with two beautifully-fluffy and light pieces of fried bread. As expected, the dish was rich, but still fairly light--more of a spread than anything else. Definitely a lot of flavor, a bit of a crunchy pop thanks to the cauliflower, and a nice way to start the meal.
Next came the smoked oysters topped with a drizzle of french curry, epazote vinegar, and chipotle butter, sitting inside a searingly-hot steel skillet on a bed of smoky wood chips and seaweed. To say this dish was rich would be an understatement. The vinegar and curry provided a nice counterpoint to the richness of the oysters drenched in chipotle butter. And, the smoky notes came through clearly, thanks to both the presentation and the fact these were expertly prepared. A wonderful effort, both visually, and from a taste perspective. We could have enjoyed another plate of these with no problem at all on our first trip in. Instead, we waited until the very next night to enjoy them again.
While certainly not an Asian restaurant, we decided to go with the hot and sour soup next. It had absolutely beautiful mushrooms, raw vegetables, and ginger added in. The raw green beans and scallions added a nice textural crunch, and also added a delicate flavor as the hot soup gently cooked them. The ginger added a nice little kick, and cut the richness of the broth just perfectly. A nicely composed soup for sure!
Now, Roister's entrees are where the restaurant really shines. Using only the best ingredients, they produce dishes that are both comforting, and absolutely, stunningly delicious. On our first night, we went with the Rohan Duck (over carolina gold rice, with charred citrus and an egg yolk for some umami richness), and the A-5 Japanese Wagyu, coated with togarashi spices, and topped with sea urchin butter. On our second night, we went with the "whole chicken & camomile," which comes served three different ways, and is more than enough to share.
On the duck front, we've got to admit this was some of the best (if not the best) duck breast we've ever had. Served with two breasts sliced thin, it was beautifully, if not rustically, plated in a large bowl with citrus crisps. The duck had an excellent sear on its skin side, which not only produced a deep-brown crust, but also rendered the fat underneath perfectly, cooking and marinating the duck at the same time. Cooked to perfectly medium-rare, this dish did not fail to impress. The rice was cooked nicely and had duck sausage mixed in, a creative way to incorporate even more duck. The dish was so large, we took leftovers to our hotel and ate them for breakfast the next morning. It was absolutely succulent, delicious, tender, rich and luxurious. Wonderful effort by a tremendous team of chefs.
So, let's talk about the A-5 Japanese Wagyu for a moment. This is the real deal for sure. Imported from Japan, where the cows are massaged, fed buckets of beer and fine grains at mealtime, groomed and kept in an immaculately-clean environment, and treated better than many household pets (in wealthy households), this is literally the highest grade of beef you can buy. It runs around $120 / pound if you can find it. We've never even seen this available in person, and our grocery store (Central Market) can get just about anything. We were so shocked to see this on the menu that we just had to try it. Oh, did we mention it was coated in an incredibly rich Uni (sea urchin) butter? We were sold as soon as we walked in the door. While this was the most expensive item offered on the restaurant's menu, to say it was "worth it" doesn't even begin to describe the experience. Even though it was a little thinner than we normally prefer, this 7 ounce steak was just glorious. Unctious, rich, marbled, so incredibly tender, with slight seaweed and earthy/salty/oceany notes not normally found in a steak. This was simply a special dish not replicated anywhere else we've been. Brilliant!
While we were extremely impressed with the duck and the Wagyu on our first night at Roister, the whole chicken didn't disappoint during our second meal. An enormous portion with three different preparations, this was just a wonderful way to cap off a trip. With separate parts of the whole bird fried, braised, and also poached (and placed into a cold chicken salad), this was a great way to experience chicken at a fine-dining restaurant. Different textures for sure, but still tender, succulent, and perfectly-brined across each preparation. The fried chicken was probably our favorite. The breading was both extremely crunchy and light, refusing to weigh the dish down, but still giving that homey/crunchy counterpoint that says soul-food all the way. The braised chicken came in a close second. Good sear and smoky notes, that still preserved the succulent tenderness that every good chicken breast can have if prepared correctly. And then, there were the sauces. They had a traditional white gravy, that was absolutely delicious. But then they gave you this milky-sweet white ponzu sauce that, while very different from anything we'd ever put on chicken before, was just fabulous! Mixing the two gave you a perfect mixture of acid and richness not found very often. The third preparation--the chicken salad--was really good for chicken salad. Not 100% inspiring, to be honest, and a little bit strange to serve during the entree part of the meal. But, it was still tasty enough, considering it was chicken salad.
Finally, it was time for dessert. Which, in this case, equaled splitting the "Foie Gras Candy Bar." Yes, dear children, this was a dessert that delivered exactly what it advertised. It was a frozen chocolate candy bar with walnuts, caramel, and a pretzel crunch. But, instead of traditional nougat, it was filled with an incredibly rich, luscious, unbelievably fabulous frozen foie gras pate. The sweetness of the chocolate and caramel, the crunch from the pretzel and walnuts, and the unworldly richness provided by the foie gras was simply overwhelmingly delicious. Definitely good in small portions (we shared one candy bar, and that was more than enough), but incredibly inventive, and one of the best desserts we've had. Ever. Sweet. Savory. Delightful. Well played, Chef Achatz, well played!
Overall, our experiences at Roister were just fabulous. We plan to go back whenever we're in Chicago--even if we're only there for a long layover. It's a super-approachable restaurant with extremely friendly waitstaff and an inventive but unpretentious menu. It is flavor-driven more than anything else, and it gives you a wonderful value for your money. The ambiance, while certainly a little noisy, gives you an intimate view of the chefs and the kitchen that can't be easily matched by other Michelin-rated establishments. We can't recommend Roister more highly to anyone traveling to Chicago. We only wish we could have gone a third time while we were there!! It's that good!