By Michael Nagrant
As a first-generation American (my mom was born in Poland), I’ve seen the ease and speed in which cultural traditions are lost, and so I’m determined to preserve the meaningful ones. It’s probably why as a secular Catholic, too lazy to attend regular Sunday mass, I still try to adhere to most of the other religious traditions, and not just the ones that include bowing to massive binges of guilt. And so with Lenten season upon us, I and 2.4 million local Catholics are in need of a seafood fix for our Friday meat fasts.
I decided to put away the McDonald’s Fillet of Fish this year in favor of haute fare, and so I chose Bucktown’s seafood-focused Scylla, where the menu was recently retooled with no entrée priced over $18. Even though the restaurant is named after the six-headed sea monster that ate part of Odysseus’s crew, at these prices, there wouldn’t be too big of a bite out my wallet.
Chef-owner Stephanie Izard did some time under Shawn McClain at seafood-focused Spring before opening her spot, located in a Bucktown red-brick worker’s cottage on Damen, two years ago. Unlike other restaurants converted from former residences, ala Charlie Trotter’s or Alinea, Scylla, with its arched roof, hardwood floors and window coves still retains the character of a true home. There’s a warmth and lived-in aura that reinforces boisterous gatherings of friends and family breaking bread.
Instead of relying on luxury ingredients like truffles, Kobe beef or caviar, Izard employs a bit of alchemy transforming seemingly ordinary pantry items like shallots into a savory oniony crème brulee custard, along with matchsticks of zingy and crunchy apple and bitter endive that cuts the rich sweetness of the custard.
Izard, who says, “Even a raw mushroom makes me happy,” puts fungi to good use in an earthy mustroom-lobster Straciatella or Italian egg drop soup.
Paella risotto is redolent with a saffron perfume. Crispy skin-on trout perched on a nest of sautéed fennel and fingerling potatoes with a garlicky bath of bagna cauda, or anchovy olive oil sauce, is a rustic gem that channels a Hemingwayesque scene where fishermen eat freshly caught lunch near the stream’s edge.
While her time at Spring is evident, Izard’s also added a touch of McClain’s other spot Custom House, (not safe for the Friday fast) by serving up a wintry interior space heater of hearty braised short ribs paired with smoky cippolini onions and an eggy bread pudding studded with rich blue cheese.
While Izard’s prowess with meat would satisfy the most ardent Texas ranch hand, she generally uses “flesh” as a subtle counterpoint to delicate seafood, as she does in her crispy skate paired with house-cured pork belly. Topped with a fried quail egg, country-style potato discs and a maple syrup jus, the memory of this dish will serve as a great substitute if you decide to skip breakfast the next day.
Desserts like sautéed Fuji apples and Bartlett pears topped with a drizzle of brown butter and balsamic vinegar are perfect examples of coaxing out the natural properties of fruit instead of relying on fancy architectural sculptures of pulled sugars or heart-stopping cream-filled chocolate ganaches.
House-made espresso ice cream conjured my visit to Intelligentisa’s micro-roasting works on Fulton last year. With only a hint of bitterness and all of the complexity of a good single-origin bean, I might just stop drinking and start spooning my fix, that is if I don’t give up caffeine for Lent.
Scylla, 1952 North Damen, (773)227-2995. The restaurant has since closed, and Izard went on to win the popular television cooking contest, Top Chef.