There is something to be said for the understatement, and Marchesa is not afraid to get the conversation going. Rather than overwrought or over-the-top, the new River North restaurant keeps its dishes simple, saving the frills for its three floors of intricate interiors. Make no mistake—executive chef Mark Sabbe, who rose to senior sous chef at Mercat a la Planxa before opening Burger Bar and Sociale for the Good Eats Group, holds his kitchen to high standards. Despite the straightforward fare, his embellishments are thoughtfully embedded within folds of flavor. “We’re not wasting a lot of time putting foam on the plate or making sure our dots are in the right place,” Sabbe says. “We want things to look pretty, but we want the food to speak for itself.”
Owners Kathryn Sullivan Alverà and Jason Clark (Prosecco) have surrounded diners with artwork to match the menu, which culls favorite dishes from French, Spanish and Italian cuisines. Dining among works from the likes of Miró and Dalí is fitting with dishes like the memorably delicious secret cut of iberico de bellota ($39). The peppery slices of pork, acquired from the finest acorn-fed Spanish pigs, are kissed with sweet, nutty notes, while the acerbic baby-beet escabeche wakes up the dish with a smart bite. Together, they hit each note on the palate one by one.
What you envision while perusing the menu is precisely what ends up set before you, but with a few crafty amendments. Poached diver scallops rest on a bed of purple Peruvian potatoes, buttery and smooth in the otherwise traditional Coquille St. Jacques ($28). French onion soup, served in an individual tureen for $10, is a classic, unaltered other than an accent of fennel layered among the onions. French fries are just that, although they manage to be some of the crispiest and most satisfying we’ve had. The changes Sabbe does indulge in are smart ones; duck breast ($38) is brightened by pomegranate compote and sliced fennel, then crowned with a medallion of seared foie gras and paired with chestnut puree.
Other proteins get equal treatment as appetizers. Smoked salmon, one of Sabbe’s more decorative dishes, proves to be a fresh, light charmer with briny capers and sprigs of dill mingling with the salmon, itself carrying a whisper of smoke ($14). Heap the chilled fish on crisp toast points with a dollop of creme fraiche, and you’ve got quite the tasty bite. A crusty slice of sourdough similarly benefits shrimp jovan ($15), bathed in butter and infused with garlicky undertones.
Cocktails, named after artists, are also riffs on familiar classics. The Hello, Dalí! ($16) is a stiff, Boulevardier-esque sipper of bourbon, campari and a twist of orange. If you’re not put off by the thought of a truffle-based cocktail, try the Mr. Fortuny, in which the richness of the infused truffle mingles with the sting of vodka and briny stuffed olives ($17). Served in crystal-cut glasses and often sporting delicate flowers as garnish, the stylish drinks look at home at the posh bar, all silver and gold and glass. The surrounding dining room of the former Crofton on Wells imparts relaxed charm, but be sure to get a glimpse of the upstairs private room. Here is where the celebrated flair of the restaurant’s namesake, the eccentric Italian heiress Marchesa Luisa Casati, is paid tribute, as mint walls are filled with gold-framed masterpieces, and a lovely display of furniture surrounds the ornate fireplace. Equal in its opulence, the chef’s table adjoining the kitchen offers an intimate experience in gorgeous setting.
Marchesa, to put it quite simply, is a place where elegance and graceful ease combine; a merry gathering spot where the owners, on a whim, will have talented staff or hired singers perform short operatic numbers for private events—in short, a cozy space where even a marchesa would feel at home.
535 N. Wells St.
Appetizers, $10-$25; entrees, $24-$90; cocktails, $13-$17