Getting to Ada Street, which has been hailed as one of Chicago’s best new restaurants, was a bit of a challenge. After cutting through the bumpy backroads of Chicago’s northwest industrial wasteland between Old Town and Wicker Park, and after several wrong turns, dead ends, and a quick U-ie through a gas station parking lot, my friend K. and I found our way to the tiny, nearly invisible Ada Street restaurant, located on Ada (durr) between Concord and Wabansia in Noble Square.
Ada Street, the newest venture from the guys behind DMK Burger and Fish Bar, is located somewhat unfortunately across the street from what I can only assume is the one parking lot that houses every single garbage truck in Chicago. Which meant upon exiting the car we were hit with a faceful of garbage-scented air as it wafted towards us across the lot’s vast expanse.
No matter! We approached the door to the restaurant and turned the handle. Locked, it seemed. Did we need a password? A secret Morse code-style knock? Was this was of THOSE places? After bumbling around the various other doors, pressing buttons and doorbells and startling a young man as he attempted to leave his apartment, I finally tried the restaurant’s doorknob again, this time turning it with slightly more effort than I had before. The door clicked open and we were swallowed into a dark hallway.
The hostess stand was empty save for a brightly-lit iPad and a bottle of white wine chilling in a bucket of ice. A string of chairs of all shapes and sizes ringed the right hand side of the entryway, and candles set into the recesses of the stone wall flickered cozily. Apparently, if you arrive here on a busy weekend night, you are served free booze as you sit and wait for your table. Because K. and I dined at 6pm on a Tuesday, tantamount to the earlybird special, this perk was not extended to us.
The hostess appeared and checked us in, then lead us down another darkened, candle lit hallway into the dining room, a small but brightly-lit little collection of wooden tables. The space’s former life as a mechanic’s garage is evident in the garage-style door that opens on to the patio, lending an industrial edge to the sleek, slightly retro wooden accents and mirrored bar. We were seated at a cozy table in the middle of the restaurant, where I had a prime view of the open kitchen, which buzzed with energy as the two chefs joyfully chugged Red Bull and bobbed around to the music.
Ada Street shuns the traditional TouchTunes jukebox for a collection of vinyl records diners can flip through and then bring the selections to the bartender, who will add the records to the queue. Elsewhere, this little perk runs the risk of coming off as affected or pretentious, but given that the cocktails are named after songs from Bob Dylan (Tangled up in Blue), Tom Waits (Gonna Love You til the Wheels Come Off), and Elvis Costello (All This Useless Beauty), it manages to trend more charming than cheesy.
Our server, an Audrey Plaza lookalike in neon green wedge sneakers and a black lace dress—think April Ludgate without the droll cynicism and unsmiling monotone—crouched beside our table to take our order, her chin level with the table’s edge. This practice is hotly debated within the hospitality industry, and is a move I usually view as skewing dangerously close to 37 Pieces of Flair territory. But here it seemed perfectly on par with Ada Street’s easy and comfortable vibe. She calmly explained the menu to us, provided suggestions, then drifted away on her neon green Reeboks. (Seriously. They were neon green Reebok wedges. They were amazing.)
Small plates are Ada Street’s game, though I must say I’m getting a tad worn out on the whole small plate trend. Easier for sharing, sure, but sometimes I just want my own goddamn plate of food that I’m not forced to pass around the table nine times until it gets back to me with nothing left but a stray piece of arugula. But that’s a post for another time, because Ada Street nailed the content of their small plates.
We started with a plate of three cheeses (“farmhouse cheeses from hither and yon,” sez the menu) accompanied by a tiny porcelain jar of orange fig compote and teeny, fragile walnut toast rounds.
Then came octopus, perfectly charred; fragile yet meaty quail served with a luscious bacon-infused cream sauce, pillowy gnocchi, and salty, dense lake trout with a ramekin of plump olives marinated in rich oils.
The good thing about small plates, I’ve found, is that there’s always room for dessert. For us, that meant sugary brioche donuts literally fresh out the grease, so hot we burned our mouths and fingers. We dipped and double dipped the donuts into a pot of creamy port wine caramel sauce, and sipped our complimentary flutes of limoncello.
Delightful, I said to K. She nodded in agreement, having knocked back her remaining limoncello like a college freshman pregaming before a frat party. Well done.