It’s undoubtedly intimidating to craft a tasting menu that will go up against the likes of Acadia and Blackbird. But 15 vegan courses? “It was the most challenging menu I’ve ever built in my life,” chef Matt Kerney says of the vegan tasting menu at Uptown newcomer Brass Heart. “I learned a lot about myself, in terms of finding ways to make things happen that don’t fill the food with a bunch of hydrochlorides.”
His efforts paid off; some of his vegan courses best their meat-friendly counterparts on the regular menu. To wit: The pistachio puree-filled agnolotti served as the eighth vegan course proved an ideally warm, creamy pairing to a sweet peach consommé. The coupling succeeded where the rabbit tortellini served to omnivores fell just short of a perfect marriage of flavors. In some places, the two menus—and the abbreviated nine-course options—converge, as with the rice-and-beans dish that arrives halfway through dinner. It was the first course Kerney knew he wanted to serve—an homage to the humble dish’s universality—and his addition of salsa verde and chicharrones bring acidity and texture to its intensely satisfying depth.
It’s an interesting approach for one of the city’s pricier tasting menus. Rice and beans hardly rank as upscale, but Michelin-starred Kerney (Longman & Eagle, Schwa) has a penchant for giving lowbrow the luxury treatment. The regular menu offers up beautifully rendered takes on lobster, lamb and wagyu. The single coin of lamb—with 15 courses, every dish is petite by necessity—is ideally seared and rich, but it was the wagyu that won me over. Its pencil-thin line of salsify puree has a mild sweetness that enriches the buttery slivers of meat along with a crisp, salty chip.
Throughout each three-hour dinner, Kerney offers a vast range of flavors and some happy surprises. The identical third course, a tomato-free almond gazpacho, is cool and light, with spikes of flavor from grapes and crunchy bits of almond. Avocado toast isn’t toast at all but a garlicky avocado-and-corn sorbet served in a dense sourdough cone.
With 15 courses, a few inevitably end up being somewhat forgettable; I could take or leave the pressed melon dusted with truffle shavings. The sourdough bao stuffed with morsels of duck is satisfyingly sweet; the vegan version, filled with gooey plum sauce, is too much so. Others lived on in my memory for weeks. The sculptural vegan fourth course had wafer-thin discs of carrot leather and sesame-seed shortbread stacked with puffs of coconut mousse. The first round of dessert features a wedge of vegan cashew “cheese” layered with huitlacoche so creamy and rich, I would have thought it goat cheese.
While Kerney helms the kitchen, General Manager and Beverage Director Sarah Traynor masterfully orchestrates the front of house. Traynor’s graceful delivery is enough to recommend her, but her expertise when it comes to wine pairings ($110) elevates the experience immensely. Her preference for little-known producers and women-owned vineyards yields delights like a 2017 verdejo from Herdade da Malhadinha Nova in Portugal. Chicago’s own Hopewell Brewing supplies a sprightly wild saison served with the rice and beans that, like everything else, feels full of heart. Regular 15-course menu $165, vegan menu $145
4662 N. Broadway
Tue.-Thu., 6-11pm; Fri. & Sat., 5:30-11:30pm