Smooth and crunchy, sweet and salty, rich and acidic. Great dishes are all about juxtaposing opposing elements and achieving balance, and Baume & Brix, which opened two months ago in River North, revels in this balancing act, extending to the restaurant concept itself.
Appetizers are tiny and delicate, the sort of things you might find in a tasting menu, while main courses have the heft and richness of supper club entrees. Hypermodern creations such as the "naked lobster" salad (the raw lobster rendered edible via a high-pressure water bath) share menu space with a massive pork chop with Luxardo cherries.
The restaurant's name even reflects an old/new dynamic, baume being an 18th-century measurement of liquid density and brix the slightly more contemporary scale by which vintners measure sugar levels.
So maybe it's fitting that there are two executive chefs, Thomas Bowman and Ben Roche, who worked together at Moto and Ing. "It's the two-heads-are-better-than-one idea," Bowman says. The dual-chef model is difficult to maintain, but I can't argue with the early results.
That lobster salad, for instance, arrives with pillows of vanilla-potato foam, a slaw of parsnip, coconut and lime, and crispy threads of fried celeriac — subtle support that keeps the gentle lobster flavor front and center. By contrast, the grilled octopus is a riot of assertive tastes; the charcoaled octopus is served "fun dip" style (as in the dip-and-lick powdered candy), arriving with trays of dehydrated aji amarillo (a Peruvian pepper), powdered hot paprika and a coconut-lemon powder; I had so much fun mixing and matching the seasonings that I ran out of octopus before I ran out of interest. Next time I may have to get a double order.
The oyster duo offers a pair of cold oysters, over a gelled mignonette, and a pair of hot (deep-fried) ones, perched over squares of pork belly. (Yes, that makes it an oyster quartet, but I don't write the menu.) I like the umami veloute, a rich mushroom soup made with a Parmesan-infused vegetable broth, and the trifle of chicken-liver mousse and egg salad, served in a glass jar with a shard of crisped chicken skin.
But while the appetizers show off the chefs' contemporary, technique-driven instincts, main courses indulge their comfort-food leanings. The duck breast is a thing of beauty — a single piece of solid duck, brought to sous-vide, medium-rare perfection, topped with separately cooked crispy skin affixed with an adhesive of porcini and chanterelle duxelles; wide ribbons of pickled squash add textural and acidic interest. Black cod is almost literally black, its pearly flesh encased in a broiled soy-sake-mirin marinade, served with black forbidden rice over an aromatic broth that enhances the fish's innate sweetness; this might be the best dish on the menu.
The braised short-rib is comfort food of another sort, given a persuasive warmth by squiggles of Thai red curry and placed over young coconut cooked congee-style (congee is an Asian rice porridge), and the aforementioned pork chop arrives with a smidgen of pine branch, ignited tableside for an aromatic whiff (the pine is so young it stays lit for only a second or two). The lamb T-bone is an entree in flux — a hefty solo chop my first visit, a pair of loin chops the second — but matched to a shredded Brussels sprouts salad and incredibly sweet Tokyo turnips, it's a good choice either way.
There are some fun desserts, including a Greek yogurt panna cotta parfait with raspberries and yellow-beet matchsticks, and a "frostee and fries" that cunningly inverts the fries-into-Wendy's-Frosty combo with potato ice cream, malt-dusted fries, caramelized banana slices and sour-cherry "ketchup." But the must-have finale is the "cookies and milk," part of the still-developing "Divide" (as in shareable) menu section, featuring house-made cookies (the kitchen doesn't prep the dough until the order is placed) with flavored milk (Earl Grey-infused milk with the chocolate-chip cookies, almond milk with the candy-cap-mushroom and raisin cookies). Served in retro-look ceramic containers, the cookies-and-milk choice is an absolute no-brainer; you must try this.
Interesting cocktails tend toward make-or-break dominance by a key ingredient. The Brix Cup, a riff on a Pimm's Cup, is pretty much a yes-no referendum on cucumber, and hop notes strongly define the La Vida Rose mezcal drink. I'd recommend the Negroni-like Harker, which I liked, and the spiced-up tequila-and-tonic known as the Togarashi Caballero, because I just like saying the name. There also are a dozen or so beer options, and an intriguing wine list virtually devoid of usual suspects.
The dining room is comfortable and beautiful; two-top tables are a little small for the plate sizes the kitchen favors, but the tables are well-spaced. Like most loft spaces, there's a lot of exposed brick, but backlit black-glass panels, a long dancing-flame fire pit at seated-eye level and orb-like copper lamps give the room a custom look. A veritable army of servers and overseers keep dining-room efficiency high.
As if this weren't enough, Baume & Brix also comprises two additional dining venues. The lounge, an extremely attractive space, has a separate menu of offbeat small bites (foie gras mousse with muscat jelly, sweetbreads in corn-dog batter), and there's a downstairs space called The Grid, a modern sports lounge offering Bowman and Roche's spins on bar food.
Baume & Brix is not yet what it will be; still to come are: a Divide section of savory dishes, in which parties of four to six can feast on a whole-roasted pork shoulder and more than a half-dozen accompaniments (48-hour notice required); and a chef's table, tucked inside the loft building's onetime elevator shaft. Given its work-in-progress status and its fascination with duality, a two-star rating seems altogether fitting. But you know what? The food's too good for that. Here are three stars, gentlemen; divide them as you wish.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
Baume & Brix
351 W. Hubbard St.; 312-321-0351; beaumeandbrix.com
Tribune rating: Three Stars
Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday
Prices: Entrees $16-$26
Credit cards: A. DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Valet parking; wheelchair accessible (wheelchair entrance on Orleans Street)
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.