Zak's Place has been flying under the radar for most of its five years in downtown Hinsdale. It did get a nice mention from Chicago magazine for its burger (No. 16 on a list of 30) last year, but that was something of a mixed blessing, says partner Yamandu Perez. "I don't want people to think of us as a burger joint," he says.
Perez, also the chef, calls it all "contemporary American," in its most inclusive, melting-pot sense. "I take it as a compliment when people say they can always find something to like on my menu," he says. "I'm not afraid of doing dishes we can have fun with, and I'm not afraid of taking popular items off the menu to change things. We can always bring it back."
So don't set your sights on that cinnamon-accented foie gras, which will probably be off the menu by the time you read this.
What makes Zak's interesting right now is that Perez and co-owner Matt Van Valkenburgh are planning a second restaurant, appropriately named Two, in the West Town neighborhood this summer. Based on the Hinsdale operation, what might Chicago expect?
For starters, expect a serious wine program. Perez logged a half-dozen years at the well-regarded Gabriel's restaurant (in Highwood) as general manager and sommelier, and he knows his vino. Zak's, though as unfussy a dining room as they come, nevertheless has a 700-bottle wine cellar and hosts regular wine dinners. Wednesdays are no-corkage BYO days, and Fridays, Perez pulls a few random bottles (limited quantities, of course) and sells them for half-price.
You also can expect the sort of global influences that inform the Zak's Place menu; Two's preview menu included meatloaf sliders, duck ravioli with Kentucky bourbon sauce and bison carpaccio with grana padano cheese.
But that's what you'll eat then. At Zak's, here's what you can eat now.
On the whole, Zak's Place is solid but unspectacular, providing well-crafted dishes that rarely set your heart soaring but almost never disappoint. But there are gems, such as a pork belly appetizer that arrives looking like a terrine, a cylindrical stack of pork, peppers, potatoes and pear (for a hint of sweetness), crowned with a sunny-side-up quail egg. A red wine gastrique beneath provides just the right touch of acidity.
I'd also make room for the mussels bolognese; I was initially dubious about this combination of mussels, white-wine broth and chunky sausage, but the ingredients got along just fine, and some melted leeks gave the dish a whisper of spring.
The chocolate-braised short ribs were another nice surprise; the chocolate presence is fleeting, a respectable supporting character instead of an annoying diva, and the white-truffled orzo underneath gently supports the dish's earthy nature. This might be the best dish on the menu.
But I wouldn't overlook the skirt steak, smothered in chimichurri sauce and presented with roasted corn niblets and wide slices of grilled sweet potatoes. Veal loin with yellow and pattypan squashes (the dish now features Spanish papas bravas) is a solid performer. The daily fish preparation is likely worth your attention; grilled escolar over a citrusy, just-spicy-enough vinaigrette was a hit with me one night.
About one rung down are such dishes as whitefish ceviche, a Cuban-style preparation that's less overtly acidic than most, and considerably lighter on the cilantro component, which some will find a blessing and others will find too neutral. The Zak's salad is pleasant enough, a sheaf of grilled romaine lettuce that retains an agreeable crunch and stands up well to a lively chipotle-ranch dressing. Lobster-crab mac and cheese is tasty; the seafood is finely chopped for even distribution — no prize seafood nuggets to search out — and the white-cheese blend is dusted with saffron to give the dish its traditional color. The wild-boar ravioli features house-made pasta and good flavors throughout, but I'd like it better if the $24 price tag went down a couple-three dollars.
The only dish I'd scratch off the list would be the rabbit risotto that was offered one night; any hope of rabbit flavor was lost amid a surfeit of tomato sauce and cheese, and all that sauce gave the rice a waterlogged texture. But the style of risotto changes daily at Zak's, so hopefully this was a one-time aberration.
Pastry chef Pepe Martinez puts out some very appealing desserts. His chocolate blackout cake is nicely nuanced, offering three chocolate tastes and textures on a single plate. Apple bread pudding has surprisingly light texture, and if the excellent burnt-caramel ice cream is outsourced, I have no complaints. My favorite is the blood orange parfait, which has a red velvet cake base, custardy blood orange middle and some blood orange supremes on top. I don't particularly care for red velvet cake (and apparently I'm the only one), but I liked the colors and flavors of this composition very much.
Zak's Place is good. Maybe not put-30-miles-on-the-odometer good, but the place has passion and creativity, excellent wines and zero attitude. These are good things.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine," CLTV and at wgntv.com/vettel.