Food reviewers like to give a new restaurant a month or more to settle in and work out the kinks, but when The Barn opened Nov. 1, my party of four already had a reservation for two short weeks from opening night. Hello, deadline! I was quite prepared to cut the food and service some slack because of the timing, but no need. The Barn’s waitstaff and kitchen worked in seamless perfection. Director of Operations Stefen Bosworth, Executive Chef Nicole Pederson and owner Amy Morton have turned what was literally a horse stable into a gorgeous gathering spot. You might recognize those names as the team behind Found Kitchen and Social House. While this restaurant is quite different in concept, look and menu, the team’s synergy got things off the ground with aplomb at this new Evanston spot.
Starting with the food, you immediately see the differences from Found. “This menu has more structure, and I think of it as more masculine—no sharing small plates,” says Morton. “Also, the menu at Found is always changing, but there’s something to be said for always having that dish you love on the menu.” And that dish might be one of the appetizers. The venison tartare is a twist on the classic steak tartare, but served with a grated root vegetable remoulade and sweet potato chips. The tomato and onion tart will catch your eye as you walk in. It’s prominently on display, but what you can’t see is the cornmeal crust that you’ll be craving for weeks to come. “We must have made that tart 30 or 40 times before we got it right,” says Pederson. “I had this dream of a grand tart in the dining room—I’m a Francophile at heart!”
That dedication to persevering until a dish is perfect is also evident in the steaks. While The Barn isn’t a steakhouse, in a nod to both the setting and to Morton’s father, Arnie (founder of Morton’s Steakhouses), Morton wanted the steak to be a dish diners would rave about. “Amy and I went to Kansas and met with ranchers; then we did 20 or 30 blind taste tests to narrow it down,” Pederson says. In the end, they found a fourth-generation butcher who breeds black Angus cows and farms them out to small ranches in the Midwest. “We wanted to feel good about the meat, but it also had to have the best taste, and this purveyor had it all.” Right up there with the beef is the whole-roasted branzino. The whole fish sounded a little overwhelming on the menu, but when it came to the table, the server deftly skinned and boned the fish into perfect fillets before drenching them with a delicious beurre blanc sauce. Like the steak, you get all the flavor of the cooking on the bone, but you don’t have to do any of the work.
Also of note, for liver lovers (and no one at our table fit that category), The Barn has a pan-seared calf’s liver that Pederson put on the menu after having the dish on a recent trip to Montreal. “I thought no one would order it, but people love it,” she says.
While the entrees come with nicely dressed plates, including vegetables and sauces, don’t ignore the sides. We ate every drop of the creamed Swiss chard with tiny cipollini onions. It was like the best version of a Thanksgiving green-bean casserole that you’ve never had. The Swiss chard is silky in its rich sauce, and the fried onions on top are perfectly crisp. We didn’t have room for the mac and cheese, but the fact that it’s listed as “Amy’s daughter’s favorite,” makes it seem like a must-order for our next visit.
The desserts veer toward the classic: chocolate mousse served with candied hazelnuts and whipped cream, and creme brulee served with a shortbread cookie. But when done right—as with the rest of the menu—a classic tastes fresh and new.
The service at The Barn has a lot to do with this feeling that it’s a restaurant that spins the tried and true into improved versions. Many dishes are served tableside, but not in a pretentious or intrusive way. Instead, as the server made our salads—we were all in for the bacon and anchovies—he joked with us as he mixed. We found that same attitude of good cheer with the drinks service. Cocktails were explained (like Found, you will not recognize every ingredient, but you will love the result), and wine by the glass is served at the table with a sip offered before you commit. Other small touches—like the warm butter that we smeared on every bite of the sourdough rolls—make you wonder why every restaurant doesn’t take that step. And if these refinements are evident after just two weeks, the diner who is making reservations for two months or two years from now will certainly find the same warm greeting, delicious food and snap-on service that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Rear 1016 Church St. (in the alley that runs between Maple and Oak streets), Evanston, 847.868.8041,
Open for dinner Tue.-Sat., Valet parking
Appetizers, $8-$18; entrees, $19-$48; side dishes, $7-$12; desserts, $7-$11