The last time I stepped inside an Amy Morton restaurant, it was March 1990, when Morton, daughter of legendary restaurateur Arnie Morton, had a pleasantly quirky Old Town restaurant called Mirador. It was a cute place, decorated with framed mirrors and eclectic artwork, and the food was very good, especially under chef Debbie Gold, now making foodie headlines in Kansas City, Mo.
Mirador closed in 1993, and since then, Ms. Morton and I have aged 20 years. One of us looks it.
Amy Morton is back, charming customers and directing operations at Found Kitchen, which she opened in Evanston in November. A 20-year absence from the restaurant biz really ought to come with a tawdry, dissolute back story, but here, Ms. Morton disappoints.
"Life happened," she says simply. "And then I met Neal (Levin, her husband) and had three children. But I always knew I wanted to try this again."
I can think of a few hundred people who are happy she did, most of whom are waiting for their names to be called. Evanston does not lack for quality dining options, but the locals have been flocking to Found as though it were the only game in town. On weekends, two-hour waits are commonplace (Found doesn't take reservations), and when I walked in on an inhospitably cold Tuesday evening, I was lucky to grab the last two empty seats at the U-shaped table (extremely comfortable) at the end of the bar.
Not that you're likely to have a choice, but Found offers various dining environments. The front third is decorated like a parlor, decked out with wing chairs and settees and occasional tables. Beyond that are more traditional free-standing tables and chairs and some banquette seating. Way in back are the bookcase-lined library and the salon privee, a sultry private room that, when not in use, serves as a comfortable waiting area. Walking from front to back is like strolling through your favorite aunt's house. Vintage framed pictures and mirrors line the walls, and the bookcases hold old law books and various tchotchkes, all of it (as well as much of the furniture) culled from resale and salvage shops. Found objects, in other words.
It plays well with patrons of a certain age, reconnecting with their collegiate bohemian days while spending $25 and more per entree. But with a good assortment of sturdy small plates and a handful of $13-and-under sandwiches (including a deeply satisfying French dip and a peameal bacon, cheese and egg combo that plays like a gourmet Egg McMuffin), even college students can — and do — find this place within range.
Nicole Pederson, last seen as executive chef at the late C-House, the Marcus Samuelsson restaurant, has abandoned the refinement of her previous work for a more rustic American approach. Early courses include a nicely composed chef's board, a meat-cheese-vegetable array that recently included coppa salami, a nicely sharp Wisconsin cheddar and a potted vegetable terrine of beet, pickled fennel and bulgur. Playful flatbreads, among them a sweet-potato hummus version topped with quark (a creamy white cheese) and shaved veggies, and a bacon-leek version that's a virtual tarte flambee, are ideal for sharing.
Fun dishes include oyster tacos with pickled poblano and tomatillo peppers and cilantro crema, lamb-pork meatballs combined with a pistachio chimichurri sauce, and grilled Spanish octopus in a frisee forest concealing nuggets of roasted sunchokes and picholine olives. Twice-fried chicken wings are coated in a thick lemon-honey glaze that's incredibly sticky — my kingdom for a hot towel! — but pretty darn yummy. Creamy polenta arrives with almonds, mushrooms, smoky blue cheese and a slow-poached egg; mix them together and you get a big mess, but it's an umami bomb of soul-comforting flavors.
The menu lists but four main courses, augmented by one or two specials. Lamb loin, which generally appears only on weekends, is worth seeking out; I particularly liked Pederson's turnip accompaniment — roasted turnips, oil-glossed turnip greens and pickled turnip chips — but with spring finally here, the root veggies aren't going to stay much longer. The whole-roasted fish — trout on my first visit, farmed ivory char more recently — gets nice support from dehydrated vegetable chips, crispy baked kale and a smear of green-goddess aioli.
The tightly focused dessert list includes one pound cake, one sundae and a pot de creme, the versions of which change with the seasons. Currently the pound cake has whispers of orange, enhanced by orange supremes, matched to toasted-coconut gelato (courtesy Black Dog Gelato) and Meyer lemon curd. The chocolate pot de creme is very good, topped with a fat dollop of creme fraiche, but the accompanying shortbread cookies, perfectly crumbly and graced with a touch of salt, are the real stars of the plate. The Turkish-coffee sundae, a virtual parfait that includes sweetened ricotta, coffee gelato, brown-butter caramel and walnut meringue, is such an inspired sweet I'll be sad when it gives way to something else. If you prefer a liquid dessert, the interesting cocktail menu includes a "stout float" with vanilla gelato and molasses bitters — a black cow for mature audiences.
Unaffected servers are so charming and laid-back it's easy to overlook how on-point they are with food and wine recommendations. In sum, Found is a find, once you've found a table. I'm sorely tempted to open a bar across the street, which I'll call Lost. Found's overflow alone might keep my business afloat.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
1631 Chicago Ave., Evanston; 847-868-8945
Tribune rating: ¿¿
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Prices: Entrees $14-$38
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Not accepted
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Ratings key: ¿¿¿¿ outstanding; ¿¿¿ excellent; ¿¿ very good; ¿ good; no stars: unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.