While many Chicago restaurants have gorgeously designed dining rooms, few can compete with North Pond for having the most beautiful setting imaginable in the middle of a skyscraper jungle. Situated on the north end of Lincoln Park, North Pond is surrounded by nature, with the City’s skyline looming in the background. During the summer, the area around North Pond becomes an arboretum and a sanctuary for wildlife; in colder seasons, snow replaces foliage, and the frozen pond turns into a winter wonderland for resilient fauna and adventurous ice skaters alike. If this sounds like something out of a Thomas Kinkade painting, it’s because it really is that beautiful.
The chef behind North Pond is Bruce Sherman. Chicago-raised, France-trained, the most unique aspect of Sherman’s resume is actually his four-year stay in India as a restaurant consultant. This experience no doubt had an impact on Sherman’s cooking philosophy, forcing him to think locally and seasonally. In 1999, Sherman brought this sense of seasonality and localvorism back to Chicago, as he becomes the chef at North Pond. Over the years, Sherman has made a name for himself in Chicago, making North Pond one of the most celebrated restaurants. And yet, James Beard and Michelin have not given North Pond any love. Sherman has been nominated for James Beard’s Best Chef Great Lakes Region six times, but he has never won. After two years of feeling its way around Chicago, Michelin also hasn’t awarded Sherman any star. Having never been to North Pond before, I entered North Pond with a mission: to decide whether it was one of the most overrated restaurants by Chicagoans or one of the most underrated by the rest of the world.
I went for the Sunday brunch, one of the best brunch deals in Chicago. From where I parked, the restaurant was actually kind of hidden.
As I pulled up right next to some nondescript parkland, I thought my GPS had thrown me for a loop. With half-trust in technology, I walked into the snow and climbed up a small hill. At last, on the other side of the hill was the wooden structure of North Pond, sitting next to the pond and surrounded by white snow. I felt as if I had entered into the world of a Kawabata Yasunari novel. The dining room was designed in the Arts and Crafts style, showing off the beauty of raw materials as well as the architectural craftsmanship that tied everything together. In the front room, there was a floor-length window, bringing the outdoor into the restaurant. Of course, there was a crackling hearth giving the room a warm and homey feeling. All these features showed evidence of the North Pond building’s former function – as a warming house for winter ice-skaters. This was the perfect backdrop for the meal that was to come.
Starting off the morning was a single slice of raisin bread. It had a natural sweetness and a pleasant crunch. An apropos bread for brunch.
For the first course my three-course prix fixe, I decided to go with a more breakfast item – “farm egg, mushroom.” The egg was perfectly poached, bursting with a runny yoke, coating the black trumpet mushroom duxelles underneath. Topping it off was a Hollandaise sauce infused with black truffle. Classic combination, flawlessly executed. The puff pastry sandwich, the arugula salad, and the shaved Parmesan cheese added further textural interests and nuances to the rich flavor-profile of this frenchified eggs benedict.
My main course was originally named “whitefish, fennel.” However, since the kitchen ran out of Great Lakes whitefish, they substituted the white fish with a cod fillet sourced from the East Coast. This suited me well, as I love cod. The fish was lightly browned and had a wonderfully supple texture that wasn’t overly flaky. On top of the fish were juliennes of fennel pickled with orange juice. I’ve never seen this before, and it added a great brightness to the dish. Accompanying the fish were two Manila clams and two mussels, which were cooked competently. The fish was on top of a bed of perfectly fluffy couscous. The couscous was stirred with some finely chopped pistachio, which imparted a nice nutty flavor. And then there was the sauce. The sauce was actually a carrot cardamom broth. Besides having a brilliant color, the broth had a bright and almost minty sweetness, which worked quite well with the nutty couscous and the delicate cod.
For dessert, I went for comfort and ordered the hazelnut pot de crème. Served in the classic porcelain cup, the pot de crème was rich in flavor but light in texture. A scoop of vanilla whipped cream, a crunchy hazelnut biscotti, and some candied nuts provided contrasting textures. Chocolate was in different parts of the dessert in various degrees. The pot de crème was enriched with much chocolate flavor, while the whipped cream only had a hint. Topping everything off was a sprinkle of cocoa powder and cocoa nibs. Chocolate, vanilla, and hazelnut were non-demanding flavors; but using different textures and consistencies to render different intensity of each flavor, was sophisticated and interesting.
I am usually pretty good with remembering faces of people who wait on me in fine-dining restaurants; but that day, perhaps it was because my friend and I had a lot of catching up to do, I didn’t leave with an impression of what the wait staffs looked like. They were friendly and attentive, but they were un-intrusive almost to the point of transparent. This was not the kind of wait staff team that beamed with personal charms or witty comments; but at the same time they were not robotic either. Not the most memorable service, but it worked, and we were well taken care of.
I really enjoyed the meal: flavors were great and execution was flawless. But there was a part of me that was not satisfied. Just prior to going to North Pond, I learned of Sherman’s experience in India and his extensive knowledge in “Keralan Malabar” cooking. This got me really excited. There’s a large number of Indian population in Chicago, but their influence on Chicago’s contemporary American cooking has not moved beyond “curry powder.” Kerala, specifically, is known for their mastery in cooking seafood and using spices (even by Indian standard). I ordered the only dish on the menu that hinted at that part of Sherman’s resume. But I wanted more. I felt that he was pulling back his punch (quite unnecessarily) in fear of alienating customers.
Regardless, this was still cooking at a very high level. And for a Sunday brunch, this was simply indulgence. Sherman is a master of conveying season and the setting with his food. The food on the plate and the views outside of the window are in sync, playing off each other in symbiosis. True, comparing to Chicago’s great restaurants, North Pond’s food is not the most intricate and the presentation not the most designed. But the straightforward sensibility of Sherman’s cooking highlights the ingredients and the execution. In many ways, his cooking style is the culinary equivalent of the Arts and Crafts philosophy in the restaurant’s architecture. I really admire Chef Sherman’s achievement in conveying a concept with such integrity and cohesion across all aspects of the restaurant – food, surroundings, and décor – and I hope he will get a Michelin star next year for his work at North Pond. He deserves it.
22610 N. Cannon Dr.
Chicago, IL 60614