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“Cerdo” course with pork belly, white peaches and tostada dust

Heavy Weight

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | June 5, 2014

To understand how intertwined the kitchen and front of the house are at 42 Grams, you need only to look at its name. Derived from the notion that the human soul weighs 21 grams, the restaurant’s moniker comes from the combination of the souls of the husband-and-wife team behind this tiny Uptown spot, chef Jake Bickelhaupt and host/server Alexa Welsh. Technically, then, 42 Grams is a family-run restaurant—but this isn’t some mom-and-pop joint. Rather, since opening in January, it’s become the restaurant food-savvy Chicagoans can’t stop talking about—and for good reason.

Still, this might be the first you’re hearing about it. Unless you keep up on Chicago’s underground dining scene, you wouldn’t have known that for a year and a half the couple ran the popular Sous Rising in their Uptown apartment, serving creative 18-to-22-course meals to small groups of diners. Nor would you have known that Bickelhaupt has real culinary cred, having worked in the kitchens of Charlie Trotter’s, Alinea and Schwa.

I never went to Sous Rising, but after going to 42 Grams, I wish I had. It would have been interesting to see the evolution. While there have been definite upgrades since the move to a permanent space—Bickelhaupt’s especially happy about the addition of a dishwasher and ventilation system—some things have remained the same, in particular, the juxtaposition of elegant fine dining in a casual, laid-back setting.

The realization that things won’t be business as usual comes from the moment you pass through 42 Grams’ frosted glass doors and see the lone 10-top table and small open kitchen directly behind the eight seats at the stainless steel counter. While the restaurant’s prepaid-reservation system gives you some clue of what you’ll be in for, it’s still a shock to see exactly how small 42 Grams is.

But what might be a deterrent in less capable hands, 42 Grams’ size, or lack thereof, adds to its charm, creating a very intimate dining experience (those who don’t like to get up close and personal with chefs, servers and, for that matter, fellow diners, consider yourselves warned).

Setting the tone for the evening is Welsh, who warmly greets you at the door and is quick to get you settled in, including taking care of the wine you’ve brought (since there is no menu posted online, a wine pairing suggestion list is emailed prior to your reservation, as well as an inquiry to food allergies). Like Sous Rising, 42 Grams is BYOB. And at a little more than 200 bucks per person it is unquestionably an expensive meal. But, oh, what a meal it is.

Before you eat, Welsh has some guidelines to pass along. “I want to make sure we’re all on the same page and that you get it from the horse’s mouth,” she says with a little bit of sass, giving a brief introduction to how the evening will progress as well as the history of 42 Grams, including the couple’s desire to continue the welcoming dinner party atmosphere they created at Sous Rising. “The whole idea is to give our hearts and souls to each and every service and guest that dines with us,” says Bickelhaupt. A confident statement, sure, but one that gains momentum as each of the beautiful and delicious 13 courses is presented.

Defining Bickelhaupt’s cuisine style isn’t easy. There’s definitely a playful side to it as demonstrated by the first course: a floral arrangement sitting on the counter that is actually a trio of “crispy snacks” (Vidalia parchment, flax and kale chip, and a salmon skin and malt vinegar crisp). More than just a cool presentation, this course serves as a palate awakener.

Whimsy also comes into play with the second course, a riff on a cocktail with a cube of gin gelee, rose water snow and a yuzu sphere. “Try to get a little bit of everything,” says Welsh, who gives thorough breakdowns of each dish, including eating instructions in some cases. The soup of whey and chanterelle mushroom puree—a nod to Bickelhaupt’s small-town Wisconsin roots—comes with a duo of dice-size crispy cheese curds attached to the side of the bowl with tart mustard. “Anyone have an extra curd?” asks one of my fellow counter diners. Yes, they were that good.

But the food at 42 Grams isn’t all fun and games; there are plenty of classical culinary techniques being used here too. There’s the stunning salad of long, thin pieces of cucumber, colorful edible flowers and a drizzle of prawn reduction on the plate. Equally gorgeous is the “flavors of the sea” dish with chunks of scallop, salmon and razor clam paired with bits of sea vegetables, smoked trout roe and aloe marmalade. An ethereal mound of razor clam foam sits on top.

Bickelhaupt also dabbles in a wee bit of molecular gastronomy. There’s the perfectly sous-vide-cooked egg yolk in the “grain and seed” course that also includes ramp juice, seared green onions, and crunchy amaranth and bulgur. Tostada dust adds wonderful flavor to the slab of pork belly with which it’s paired with, as do the dollops of mole and smoked avocado.

But perhaps my favorite don’t-try-this-at-home ingredient is the bone marrow and beef tendon powder that accompanies the Miyazaki wagyu. While the juicy meat, simply cooked on a Japanese yakitori grill, is outstanding on its own, sliding a forkful of it through the meat powder makes it even better. (Bickelhaupt, you really should bottle this.)

There’s some technical stuff going on with the three desserts too, including the “salty” one of a pecorino cracker of sorts (“a sophisticated Cheeto,” says Welsh)paired with pecorino foam and fondue. The “sweet” dessert course provided the meal’s only misstep in the strange coating surrounding the delicious bourbon maple ice cream.

If this sounds like a lot of food, it is—and isn’t. The courses are well proportioned, and there’s such an easy-breezy flow to the whole meal that you feel more than satisfied when it ends. But without any real carbs to speak of, you don’t walk away overly stuffed either.

Or, in other words, while the courses change regularly, I can’t imagine future 42 Grams-ers having a less dazzling experience than I had.

42 Grams
4662 N. Broadway St.

Dinner Wed.-Sat.
6PM and 8:30PM
With tax and tip $204