3-STAR DINING REVIEW

A hidden gem, in plain sight

Impressive Storefront Company could use more ... company

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There are many things I don't understand about the restaurant business. I don't see why small plates are "shareable." I don't get the appeal of communal tables. And I don't understand why Storefront Company isn't crowded all the time.

The year-old restaurant on the Wicker Park/Bucktown border does decent business, but it ought to be packed. It's a good-looking, sophisticated and comfortable space. The chef/partner, the well-traveled Bryan Moscatello, was a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef in 2003, and he oversees an ever-changing, seasonally focused menu packed with beyond-the-usual-suspects dishes. The place even has a Bib Gourmand award (denoting a "good value" restaurant) from the 2013 Michelin Guide.

I will grant that Storefront's price points are higher than those of much of the area's restaurants (set aside the high-low $19 chicken and $34 antelope and the rest of the mains are $22 to $29), but they're about what you'd pay at Trenchermen, a nearby (and popular) restaurant of equivalent quality. The plain white storefront is less than enticing. And to the casual eye, there appears to be no valet parking (a crucial amenity in this traffic-dense neighborhood), even though valet service is available at next-door Piece restaurant.

So you might not be inspired to visit this place a first time. But if you do, I bet you'll return.

Moscatello has a nice way of composing plates that are easily accessible yet highly creative. Cured salmon on crackers is no biggie, but Moscatello's beet cure, imbuing the silky salmon slices with a reddish tinge and a pronounced, gentle sweetness, is a revelation. Placed on fluted brioche crackers and accented with fennel jam and some fennel-pollen cream, the appetizer manages to be familiar and new at once.

Another simple-sounding treat, lamb meatballs are mixed with currants and pine nuts and presented, five to a portion, on a nicely supportive red-pepper sauce, each meatball topped with a smidge of house-made goat-milk ricotta.

As spring ingredients begin to show up on the menu, keep an eye out for ramps; I had pickled ramps alongside plum-glazed foie gras, and the newest dish on the menu combines pickled ramps with fresh plancha-grilled ramps and ramp custard. And for the adventurous, there are applewood-smoked and gently poached oysters, combined with Granny Smith apples, apple gelee and potato foam in a double-rocks glass, a sort-of salad that thinks it's a soup.

This might be the best restaurant in town to visit for rabbit. Moscatello puts out a fine rabbit composition, an array of rabbit-loin medallions, braised thigh, rabbit-liver mousse and pickled offal (heart and kidney) along with cauliflower ravioli and mushroom-Madeira sauce, both contributing balancing sweetness.

Fish entrees are as notable for their unusual varieties — monchong and golden tilefish, anyone? — as for their delicious execution. The monchong is seared and butter poached, topped with spirals of fried salsify and presented alongside an arugula and pomelo salad; the tilefish, with toasted quinoa, is accompanied by an allium-family reunion: roasted shallots, seared pearl onions, braised leeks and confit-style garlic.

On the meaty end of things, you'll find thick-sliced antelope with gnocchi-sized rye dumplings and crunchy pumpernickel toast squares, and lamb loin with Parisian-style gnocchi and subtle accents of toasted fennel seed and blood orange.

And you don't need to be a vegetarian to love Moscatello's mushroom dish, which currently consists of maitake mushrooms next to a long plank of salsify. The mushrooms sit on a small pillow of pommes puree on one side of the plate; on the opposite side, there is a miniature version of the same mushroom-potato composition, only with the ratio reversed.

In addition to its a la carte menu, Storefront offers a six-course tasting menu ($69, $105 with wine), available only at the restaurant's kitchen counter. It provides a steps-away view of Storefront's compact kitchen (it's remarkable how much gets done in such a small space) and a look at Moscatello at his most experimental, working with limited-quantity ingredients and/or obscure animal cuts. It's almost a culinary proving ground of dishes that might end up on the regular menu; based on my tasting, I'll be rooting for the sweet-garlic pudding with fava beans and quinoa tuile, and the branzino with sweet-pea ravioli, crisped branzino skin and green scallion soubise.

Storefront has a pretty ambitious cheese selection, so much so that it's tempting to skip the sweets in favor of the dairy. Two dishes that might change your mind are the ruby-grapefruit pudding with goat-milk ice cream and textured oat crumble, and the chocolate-rye brioche (torched for a bitter accent) with dried cocoa nibs and a shiny half-dome of tempered chocolate ganache.

The wine list is small but well chosen, and includes a short list of half-bottles, something few restaurants bother to offer. The risk-taking cocktail list has one miss (the kabocha squash cocktail) but several hits (tart blood orange, an updated Old-Fashioned and a beautifully balanced gin-gin variation).

From what I could tell, service was excellent throughout the dining room; I discount my personal experience because my anonymity was pretty clearly compromised.

Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.

Storefront Company

1941 W. North Ave.; 773-661-2609

Tribune rating: Three Stars
Open
: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices
: Entrees $19-$34; tasting menu $69
Credit cards
: A, DS, M, V
Reservations
: Recommended
Noise
: Conversation-friendly
Other
: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel

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