Author & Photographer: Olivia Xiong
As an homage to their time in the farmlands of Smyth County, Virgina, Chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields sought to create a fine-dining experience with an emphasis on innovative yet humble and grounded dishes. Smyth, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago’s Fulton Market district, is the product of the Shieldses’ unquestionable success in their efforts to do so. The restaurant’s exposed-brick walls and soothing background jazz music played on vinyl encapsulate the relaxed “come as you are” ambiance, while the softly lit lounge and dining room add a layer of intimacy to the atmosphere. The open kitchen features a roaring wood-fire hearth and gives the diners a peek into the artistry of the chefs and the sublime meal that awaits.
Smyth offers diners the option of three different prix fixe menus, ranging from the 5-course “Classic” tasting vignette, to the traditional 8-course “Smyth” experience, and ultimately the extensive 12-course “Omaha” culinary voyage. Each dish highlights the Shieldses’ emphasis on ingredient seasonality; the restaurant works in collaboration with a farm south of the city, which supplies a large portion of their produce. In early February, the dishes are centered around various applications of pickling and fermentation to preserve, intensify, and elevate each component. Crisp, dehydrated kelp chips, tangy pickled black trumpet mushrooms, and earthy lima bean miso reflect the myriad of innovative techniques employed at Smyth. We chose the “Classic” tasting vignette, which features dishes like steamed fluke with green tea and sorrel, Maine lobster with egg and lima bean miso, aged ribeye with black trumpets and beef au jus paired with a brioche doughnut, and cured egg yolk in licorice with frozen yogurt meringue.
The detail-oriented nature of our experience -- the incredibly kind and attentive service, the visually harmonious plating, the particular utensil-to-course pairings -- highlights the immense amount of thought put into the diner’s experience at Smyth. Once seated, we were immediately provided with a warm cup of aromatic lemon verbena and lavender tea that marked the beginning of a relaxing and indulgent dining experience. Our favorite course featured delicate, lightly steamed fluke paired with a broth composed of sorrel, mussel broth, fermented green tea, and hints of horseradish. While we initially felt hesitant over the dish’s seemingly discordant flavors, our uncertainty faded with the first bite: each component of the broth worked harmoniously to impart acidity and sharpness that elevated the fluke’s subtle flavor. A deep green purée of mussel broth and spinach added to the dish’s intensity without detracting from the other flavors, while crisp sea lettuce chips provided a welcomed textural component.
The last of the savory courses, a 120-day aged ribeye with rich reduced cream sauce paired with a brioche doughnut and beef au jus, felt the most extravagant of all the courses, yet fell short in relation to the other courses we enjoyed. The brioche doughnut and the aged beef au jus were the unexpected highlights of this course, with the light and pillowy dough serving as the perfect means to sop up the deliciously concentrated and flavorful beef sauce. While the course presented the luxurious pairing of cream, truffles, and beef in a grand manner, the texture of ribeye itself became a disappointing surprise to us. We had difficulty cutting into the steak and its toughness detracted from the overall course. The pickled and sautéed black trumpets, along with a clear gel made of black truffles, added to the overwhelming richness of the dish already present from the reduced cream sauce and each bite increasingly overpowered our palettes.
Mushrooms followed us into the dessert courses in the form of a light dusting of dehydrated cep powder over a milk chocolate and raspberry preserves mini sandwich infused with porcini oil. The creamy chocolate had an incredibly luxurious mouthfeel, with the contrasting acidity from the raspberry preserves lifting the flavor to provide complexity to each bite. The basis of this dish seems simple as it features a common dessert pairing of raspberries and chocolate, yet the oddly harmonious incorporation of savory mushrooms into this dish illustrates exactly how John and Karen Shields whimsically surprise their diners with unusually delicious pairings. The umami-rich mushroom components were intricately incorporated into each bite and added a new dimension of depth to the chocolate.
Following my experience at Smyth, I am now an ardent supporter of mushrooms in dessert. Don’t believe me? I highly recommend you see for yourself.