Arbor doesn’t look like a restaurant. It doesn’t sound like a restaurant. And from talking to them on the phone, I still don’t know how the menu works.
Billed as a Midwestern omakase, traditionally you put your meal in the hands of the chef like any other tasting menu. Except Arbor has encouraged an open dialogue in constructing your menu, wherein we ignored the great Michael Gebert’s advice and requested no mushrooms. Except, Arbor seems to have moved away from that. Except they have 3-course, 5-course, and 7-course options in high and low price formats. They seem to be doing away with that as well, which is what makes Arbor so intriguing. It is constantly trying to improve and evolve, like Facebook, except not horrible.
Even the space has evolved. I had described Arbor as looking like a dressed-up Chipotle, which it did, back when it first opened and was only doing lunch service to a dozen Yelp reviews. Arbor is like an indie band that has somehow maintained its integrity and its underground street cred, despite out-of-state recognition from The New York Times and scoring #2 on Chicago Magazine’s 2016 Best New Restaurants list. Housed in the abandoned-office building-on-a-Saturday look in the LEED-certified Green Exchange that once served as a lamp factory, Arbor has updated its fashion sense.
At night, it gets the full Cinderella transformation. The cashier station is screened off. The giant medieval torture device/coffee cart is gone. There is now a massive U-shaped bar separating out a backdrop that is half wine cellar, half florist shop. The lights are muted (and diffuse enough for the Instagram-obsessive I’m told) through abstract fixtures like chicken nugget-shaped plaster slabs, and candlelight flickers at the table. Strangely, only a few parties filter in during a pleasant Saturday night, not so few that the place is deserted, but enough that you feel like one of several in an intimate Willy Wonka-esque experiment of environmental eating, only without the Oompa Loompas and without the terror.
Instead we have our waiter, who was on the phone earlier with us walking through the menu-choosing. When it comes to the logistics, he might ramble, but when you start talking about the philosophy of Arbor, his eyes light up and his beard bristles. (Of course he has a beard.) Their goal is to create a one-on-one interactive experience of eating at the farm. The food is obviously local and sustainable, so local and sustainable that it comes from the building’s Sky Garden. Unfortunately, this night we can’t enter (a giant, hopping soiree), but they manage to pack in a high species density of the more valuable seeds and plants for efficiency and variety. Every so often, our waiter will take a centerpiece and give it to you to snack on while extolling the virtues of anise hyssop and its fennel-licorice qualities or the cleanly herbaceous shiso. Later during our meal he’ll come over with the giant lily-pad like nasturtium leaves, which are incredibly tactile and taste like horseradish.
Occasionally, there will be something non-local. As in a few of the vinegars, black garlic or cava, brought over from Europe. But these guys are working so hard to achieve some sort of utopian vision I can’t bear to quibble. Dining at Arbor was like dining at a ritzy hippie commune, a place of such obvious love for food from the earth and responsible sourcing, where the meal is tailored to your liking. I almost want to make fun of them, but their earnest artistry and philosophical rigor got to me.
The real suspense came from whether the cooking of chefs Leonard Hollander and Chad Little would match their beliefs. This was a duo that had somehow gone from coffee cart and house-made bread to Chipotle-esque lunch service to tasting omakases. What the hell were they going to serve?
They began with walnut bread, thick and rustic, accompanied by a preserved ramp butter that packs enough pure garlicky spring wattage to leave its fellow unflavored butter in its mundane dust. As we ate, our waiter also dropped off a gratis passion fruit sangria, tart and uppity.
Then came one of those unsouped soups, those meticulously plated lines of flowers and fragments before the table-side pour. They’re almost a parody of themselves at this point, but the dish is fall coalesced: two types of beets, mutsu apple, candied sunflower seeds to match the sunflower bisque. It’s as rich and thick as a veloute, lent a natural smoke from sunchoke petals and madeira raisins that burst with sweetness.
Adding to this parade of appetizers was a remarkably scaled back salad. Confidence is a stark trifecta of roasted kabocha squash, baby greens, and more roasted grapes. Finished off with the aforementioned black garlic vin, I appreciate how ready Hollander and Little were to stand by their produce. But at 5 courses for $55, your average diner (if average diners occasionally spring for this) might start to wonder if there is more to the omakase than the world’s most responsibly sourced bread, soup, and salad.
As doubt was starting to creep in, we wondered if we should’ve gone full luxe with the 5 courses for $70 and higher-end ingredients. The aw-shucks Midwestern fare continued with a humble plate of pork secreto, fanned out on a bed of cider oats and sunflower gremolata. The rare pork was a touch tough, but it picked up acid from a sauerkraut of pickled apples. True to their description, it tasted of autumn in the Midwest, but I was more than a little bored with it. Also true to their word, our waiter continued to engage us throughout the night, dancing past intrusiveness for quiet passion. It really was like a private dinner party of three, where we could discuss the best doughnuts in the city (He dished some dirt.) or share our love of sushi maven Kai Zan. And so we trucked on with a strange balance of skepticism and apologetic enjoyment.
But Arbor knew how to finish strong. The fourth course was a knockout, both visually and gastronomically. A brilliant orange tomato polenta cradling more tomatoes contrasted with half-shredded chunks of braised beef cheek–the beef was rich and dark and pleasingly gelatinous. The tomatoes flickered with lightning tartness, and a green tomato-sweet corn chow chow added more textures to this vibrant mess of a morass. Unlike the secreto, it tasted bold and innovative and imminently comforting on a cold fall day while displaying exactly what a chef can do with an armory of fresh produce behind him.
Usually dessert at these farm-to-table havens worries me. Good pastry chefs are not exactly a dime a dozen. But Arbor immediately bought us goodwill by bringing out two different slates of dessert. A dark chocolate torte splayed out in bars of black hole density, touched with peanut butter caramel and candied oats and sadly not enough toasted peanut crumble. It was so thick and rich and chewy it was like eating dark matter come alive. I experienced moments of joy and moments of palette fatigue. But this was leavened by a Crema Catalana, a jiggly flan of a dish topped with blackberry pandan confiture, the berries plump and sprinkled with bittersweet cacao crumble and hemp seed and about eight other ingredients I couldn’t remember. It was familiar yet polished, quiet yet utterly alluring.
As our night capped off with another gratis digestif and I sat there sipping, I tried to consider whether Arbor was a success. None of the dishes were remotely failures, but I had dropped a lot of middle class coin for four and a half forgettable dishes. And yet, the stunning one-two punch of the beef and the flan in the late rounds are sometimes enough to concuss you into forgetting the forgettable.
Even stranger was the odd kinship I felt with the restaurant. I don’t know what Hollander and Little might try next: maybe terraforming the moon and harvesting its organic cheese like Wallace and Gromit while simultaneously freeing Tibet, but they’ve made it this far. Their weird, slightly culty dream of establishing an intimate farm-to-mouth dining experience resonated in me, an organically, locally, responsibly-sourced uncaring cynic. Maybe it was voodoo or clever cooking or simple kindness, but they may have converted me.
(Images via Jasmine Chang)