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A10’s double-cut pork chop

Road Trip

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | December 31, 2013

I’ve never quite understood the beauty concept of meticulously applying makeup so you look like you’re not wearing any. What’s the point of taking all that time to do something that, on the surface, looks like you’ve barely done anything at all? But I had a light-bulb moment on the topic after I went to A10, the new Hyde Park restaurant from Charlie Trotter’s vet Matthias Merges (he’s also behind Avondale’s Asian street food-inspired Yusho and craft cocktail spot Billy Sunday) that takes its name and menu inspiration from the autoroute running through Italy and the south of France.

Face painting and food might sound like odd bedfellows, but let me explain.

Or, rather, I’ll let the restaurant’s simple sounding bucatini carbonara open the looks-can-be-deceiving discussion. Like many of the ingredients that go into the large and small plates on A10’s concise menu, the pasta in this dish is housemade—and you can taste the difference. The thick, spaghetti-like noodles with a small hole running through the center have just the right texture to stand up to the rich sauce of organic cream, cheese from Michigan, nubs of smoky guanciale, garlic chips and fresh herbs. That still-jiggling egg sitting in the center gets its lovely consistency from being cooked for 60 minutes at a low temperature. In the hands of Merges and chef John Vermiglio, this classic Roman pasta dish stays true to its humble roots, but at the same time gets an upgrade from some high-end ingredients and modern techniques.

It’s a similar story with the chicken liver mousse from the small plates section. While everyone seems to be doing a version of this offal dish these days, A10’s challenges the playing field with a slightly sweet marsala gelee and smattering of earthy royal trumpet mushrooms topping the silky spread. The accompanying olive oil crackers—housemade, natch—manage to be crunchy, yet thick enough to not shatter when bitten into.
Need more convincing? One of the three pizzas should do the trick. Purists might have trouble with it being called “pizza” since the two triangle wedges on the plate look more like a love child between focaccia and flatbread than they do a traditional pie. But I imagine they’ll be silenced once they taste it. The housemade dough is chewy but also has a nice crust to it. (More proof of A10’s prowess with dough can be found in its baguette, which is served warm.) Ours came with a terrific burrata cheese, smoked eggplant (I was hoping for more smoke flavor) and drizzles of balsamic vinegar.

If you’re looking for something heartier the smoked Berkshire double pork chop should do the trick. An inch and a half thick, the beautiful cut of meat arrives standing at attention propped on its side. A worthy presentation for such a delicious dish, made even better by the tart apple caponata and fried sage leaves it’s paired with.

In keeping with A10’s low-key vibe, dishes are dropped off with just a word or two of explanation. But, really, all you need to know is waiting for you in that first bite and those that will inevitably follow. And while the conversation will at some point turn to how delicious everything in front of you is—especially if you order the scallops dish, which includes four plump, perfectly cooked and seasoned mollusks sharing the plate with a mound of creamy butternut squash and sage risotto—the food here serves almost as a backdrop to what has quickly become a popular, cozy neighborhood spot, catering to both those associated with the nearby University of Chicago (business suits accessorized with leather backpacks is a thing here) and longtime Hyde Parkers. In fact, I’m happy to report, the clientele is the most diverse I’ve seen anywhere, and that includes both in the bar area and dining room.

The interior design at A10, created by Merges’ wife Rachel Crowl of FC Studio, definitely adds to that sit-back-and-relax feeling. The white brick walls of the high-ceiling dining room are decorated with large tapestries. Along one side is an open kitchen partially obscured by a beautiful wood counter; another sports tall windows that look out onto the bustling street. Comfortable midcentury modern-esque chairs and couches, and fabric table runners, give the space a chic, homey ambience.

But there are a few bumps along the road at A10. The fried Great Lakes smelts sound good on paper, but, in reality, were greasy and lacked flavor. While the side of Brussels sprouts was tasty, the small pieces of beef tongue didn’t add anything—until I had them the next day. The predominantly Old World wine list has some wonderful selections, including some interesting Spanish whites, although I wondered why there weren’t more reasonably priced by-the-glass offerings. And there are a few glitches when it comes to service, too, but I’m willing to chalk it up to beginner’s nerves and let it slide.

Until, that is, an overeager server tried to take away prematurely, for the second time, our cannoli soft-serve. A perfect combination of ubercreamy vanilla soft-serve ice cream, salted caramel sauce, pistachios and large pieces of cannoli shells, it’s a dessert worth fighting for. A10 servers, consider yourselves warned.

What’s on Tap
Like at Yusho, A10 features draft cocktails, including the zippy Americano made with vermouth and Gran Classico.

Stepping Out
The cool overhead shelving found in the bar and dining room is made from vintage school gymnasium ladders from the ‘50s.

Meat and Greet
In the next few weeks, look for plenty of house-cured meats to appear on the menus at A10, says Merges.

1462 E. 53rd St.
Open for lunch Tue.-Sat., dinner Tue.-Sun. and brunch Sun.

Small plates and sides, $6-$13
Pizza and pasta, $8-$24
Large plates, $22-$34