Dining and food culture in Chicago

Chewing on Crust: Michael Altenberg does organic pizza

Organics, Pizza, Wicker Park Add comments

bltflatbreadBy Michael Nagrant

Visiting a promising restaurant on opening night is probably a lot like scouting high-school and college-basketball phenoms for the NBA. It’s just too early to tell. For every fifty-point whiz like Kobe Bryant, there’s a two-point bust like Darko Milicic riding the bench. Likewise, opening night for a restaurant isn’t usually a fair gauge of future success. Sure, there’s been soft openings for friends and family to fine-tune things, but when’s the last time your best friend told you that you were ugly?

Yet many believe once a restaurateur asks for your money, he should also be ready to endure your mirth or your wrath.  And the blogosphere, for better or worse, has the print and digital media cranking out early reviews like hopped-up Kerouac-novel Benzedrine junkies.

Generally I believe it’s better to do something the best rather than to do it first, to get it right, rather than just to get it. And yet, sometimes you get so excited about a concept that you can’t wait to check it out. So I’m gonna break my rule, and review Michael Altenberg’s new spot Crust with the caveat that what follows is an anonymous opening-night review, but not a measured multi-visit extravaganza.

I’m all about great chefs bringing their talents to bear on concepts that distribute better food to more people. So when Michael Altenberg of Bistro Campagne announced his plans for the first certified organic restaurant in Chicago, and an organic flatbread pizza joint priced reasonably at that, well it was for me the greatest thing since Paul Kahan of Blackbird announced his gastropub (I should probably get some other hobbies). The restaurant was expected to open in February, but all the certification hoops and procedures took time, and the interminable weight just heightened my interest.

Freakily, so much so that at 11am on May 24 I loaded my newborn son, my wife and my sister-in-law into the car for what I thought was the opening according to one of those speedy informative Web sites. Of course when we showed up, they were still touching up the walls with (the first sign of promise) friendly, low volatile organic compounds paints. The employees told us to come back at five.

I contained myself and didn’t show up until six. The main dining room, with its gleaming black ceiling interrupted by white acoustical tiles, makes you feel like you’re sitting under a gigantic piano keyboard. The tables, with their silvery geometric fiber patterns, look like Formica as designed by the late Keith Haring, and the walls are lined with canvas screens upon which movies and pictures of featured vendor farms will be projected. An example of one of those opening-night details, the movies weren’t working yet.

Service is usually one of the first things to suffer on an opening day, but our server was incredible. He ended up comping a couple of glasses wine for the table next to us, because the wait for their initial drinks had been long. Also, Altenberg’s early interviews suggested Crust would be a family spot. Indeed our server came over, acknowledged our son, and even talked at him a bit (at nine weeks old he doesn’t quite keep up his end of the conversation yet). While I could care less that he had done this, nor did I expect it, it reaffirmed the idea this spot was truly different. In fact, as I looked around we were surrounded by an unusual number of families interspersed with the usual hip Wickerati.  And if there were any question about crossover appeal, two nuns in full habit sat munching on pizza a few tables over.

Speaking of the pizza, Altenberg’s got it right.  It’s kind of a hybrid, airy, puffy thin crust that’s crunchy and soft, with the occasional charred blister, reminiscent of Neapolitan style, but not quite. The toppings aren’t your plastic bag run-of-the-mill Italian food service vendor fare. The toppings include spicy heirloom peppers, chunks of smoky slab bacon, peppery arugula and fresh clams. The Flammkuchen, an Alsatian specialty studded with caramelized onion, toasted caraway seeds (think great rye bread), silky béchamel, bacon and cracked pepper is a standout. Reasonably priced for the quality at $10-$13, the flatbreads serve one person each.

Salads are so simple, there’s nothing to hide behind. The Caesar was filled with impeccable crisp romaine hearts, shaved salty parmesan and freshly toasted crouton slivers.

In fact the only culinary misstep was the cocktails, which were as expensive as the flatbreads. Featuring house-made alcohol infusions like vodka with meyer lemon and lemon grass or cumber and mint, they were enticing. Unfortunately the three we tried were unbalanced, bland affairs. A cucumber mint sake tini smelled like cucumber, but tasted like bad vodka devoid of any mint and cucumber. We mentioned this, and they comped us a replacement margarita featuring a watermelon puree that was reminiscent of the Italian lemonade at Mario’s, but that still needed more limey acidity for balance.

Ultimately, hitting Crust on opening night was satisfying, and from what I’ve scene, Wicker Park may just have a culinary Kobe Bryant on its hands.

Crust, 2056-58 West Division.

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