Hyde Park has plenty of restaurants that are worth your attention. Now there's one that demands it.
A10, which opened late last year, has just about everything you'd want in a restaurant. The dining room is attractive, warm and architecturally interesting. The menu, neither overwhelming nor severe, offers gentle, creative riffs on Italian and French standards — A10 is the motorway running from northern Italy to southern France. Each dish, as chef/owner Matthias Merges puts it, is "about 75 percent recognizable and 25 percent 'you're gonna love this.'"
And love it you will. I could make an immensely satisfying meal out of the small plates alone. Sweetbread saltimbocca, in which a skewer of sweetbreads and prosciutto is suspended over a bowl of fontina fondue, is a dish right out of the playbook for Yusho, Merges' Japanese-inflected restaurant. (Yusho's version was tempura cod pieces hanging over a savory chawan mushi.) It's terrific, especially with the bits of shaved black truffle added to the fondue. Crispy lamb belly over baked-gnocchi cake, alongside a 60-minute egg (cooked low and slow to a custardy richness) is pure richness, while carpaccio-thin swordfish crudo, decorated with a few capers and segments of orange and blood orange, is lightness and brightness. I miss the fried smelts with gem lettuce and an anchovy dressing, a sort of reconsidered Caesar salad; when it returns in spring — no doubt in a slightly different guise — order it.
The kitchen manages some cute riffs on bar food. What's billed as "barese sausage" is actually a clever twist on the Scotch egg, beginning with a taleggio-stuffed olive wrapped in sausage and deep fried. Pizzas resemble focaccia tartines, arriving as two large triangles with various toppings. The country bacon with caramelized onions and creme fraiche is essentially a nod to Alsatian tarte flambee; adventurous palates will love the version with smoked eggplant, roasted garlic and house-made burrata.
Pastas, all but one less than $20, make great shared plates and are substantial enough to work as a main course. I'm a fan of the agnolotti; a few months back I had a version with pheasant stuffing, long strips of salsify and a classic brown-butter-sage sauce; the current iteration is filled with rabbit and is topped with medallions of rabbit loin wrapped in caul fat. The osso buco lasagna, one continuous, undulating pasta ribbon whose folds hold braised lamb shank and quark (fresh cheese), would be worth ordering for looks alone, but it's also delicious.
Large plates are very straightforward, with noteworthy accompaniments. A hefty, smoked double pork chop benefits from a bright apple caponata; wood-grilled strip steak with fries (a fine steak frites) gets a grace note of anchovy butter; and crisped artichoke hearts and parsley spaetzle add interest to the four-chop rack of lamb. Porchetta, a special one night, dressed up with mustard spaetzle and extra-long rigatoni noodles in a hearty pork-tomato sauce, is so good it deserves permanent menu space.
I've had every dessert that A10 offers, and that speaks more to the quality of the desserts than my insufficient willpower (both valid premises). Chocolate lovers are served with the chocolate beignets and/or the layered chocolate carmelia, a chocolate-on-chocolate indulgence. More interesting to me are the pistachio panna cotta, served in a jar with Luxardo-soaked cherries, sweet mascarpone and biscotti; the honey-flavored soft-serve ice cream studded with puffed rice and almond clusters; and a fall-apart polenta cake with Meyer lemon curd, fennel and crunchy freeze dried corn niblets.
Service is spot-on. Servers are well-informed, helpful in the extreme and have personality to spare. You just want to sit down with these people over drinks; the adjacent bar, a very cool and old-timey space where the full menu is served, would be a good place for that.
Speaking of drinks, the beverage program rocks. Barkeep (that's his title) Alex Bachman, who also runs the bar at Merges' Billy Sunday, offers a tidy list of classic and creative cocktails, and manager Richard Richardson does double duty as sommelier of A10's ever-growing wine list, which ranges from three-digit knockout wines to bargains in the upper $40s.
And though Hyde Park seems like a haul for midcity folk, southbound Lake Shore Drive moves so effortlessly south of the Loop that A10, just a few blocks west of the 53rd Street exit, is surprisingly easy to reach. From the Magnificent Mile, I can get to A10 faster than I can reach Merges' Logan Square properties, and that's no exaggeration.
Since striking out on his own after some 14 years as first lieutenant in the Charlie Trotter army, Merges has established himself as a chef/restaurateur with little interest in the rarefied world of ultraluxe dining. He now has opened three restaurants (Yusho and Billy Sunday being the first two), and a clear pattern has emerged. The food will be understandable yet complex, his decor invested in natural materials, particularly dark wood, with an eye for playful light fixtures. And Merges hires locally, so that his restaurants seem very much part of whatever neighborhood they're in. However he manages that trick, it's clear that it's working.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.A10
1462 E. 53rd St.
Tribune rating: 3 stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, lunch Tuesday-Saturday, brunch Sunday
Prices: Pastas and large plates $14-$30
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; $8 valet parking.
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.