While neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Logan Square have seen an explosion of noteworthy fine dining restaurants in recent years, Rogers Park has lagged a bit behind. The far north neighborhood borders on Evanston, which has its own dining scene. With the opening of Onward, however, Rogers Park is now firmly on the Chicago culinary map.
Helmed by executive chef Patrick Russ, the restaurant offers a well crafted and thoughtful take on new American cuisine. Onward was opened by Rogers Park native, Michael Olszewski, who owned one of Chicago’s few three Michelin starred restaurants, Grace. That restaurant shuttered in late 2015, and has since re-opened as the Japanese fine dining themed Yugen.
That is all history, however, and chef Russ is looking forward, not backwards. Having been in kitchens since the age of 16, he’s worked in restaurants all over the country having literally driven coast to coast exploring. Landing back in Chicago, he won a spot on the opening team at Next. That led to chef de cuisine at The Dawson and eventually executive chef at Seven Lions.
In crafting the menu, chef Russ worked to strike a balance between accessibility and fine dining. Focusing on ingredients, technique and craftsmanship more than picking a ‘concept,’ the menu has a wide range. You can sense the culinary team’s passion in the finished product too, and there is no doubt that it’s a kitchen packed with skill.
Starting out with a plate of freshly baked bread, which the baked daily by the pastry chef, it was immediately apparent that even the ‘simple’ things on the menu are prepared with care. The pretzel, seeded wheat and olive breads were all pillowy soft, with thick crust and just the right chew.
The first course was a mushroom tortelli pasta featuring handmade pasta dough. In fact, chef Russ mentioned that each of the pasta dishes on the menu get their own particular pasta dough recipe, such is the meticulous nature of the kitchen. The earthy mushroom was balanced by a burgundy truffle streusel and brown butter ‘dust.’ A subtle hint of molecular gastronomy, the nearly white colored dust packed the savory, deep flavor of brown butter in a playful way.
Tender pasta, perfectly cooked carried the ingredients which hit all the right notes on the palate. A range of textures from the soft mushrooms to crunchy hazelnuts combined with a hint of acidity from the sauce and some nice salty Pecorino cheese. This was definitely a good way to start a meal.
Next up, were blackened scallops, served with aji amarillo foam, sweet potato fritters and citrus segments. A celebration of flavors and textures, the scallops were seared perfectly with the blackening spice crusted right in. The foam added a hint of heat and a unique texture, while the blood orange and grapefruit segments counterbalanced the richness of the scallops and fritters. A dusting of crushed corn nuts added an unexpected texture and flavor to punctuate the dish.
The entree I tried was Rohan duck, served with a parsnip puree, roasted turnips, miso-quince mostarda and sage foam. The perfectly cooked duck was thoughtfully seasoned so as not to overpower flavor of the duck itself and the sweetness of the parsnip played well against the turnips. The mostarda was a bit sweet if tasted by itself, but married well with the other components.
The server had sommelier training, and picked an excellent pairing for the entree. Desert was spectacularly presented too, with the same care and attention to detail as the rest of the meal. A spiced chocolate cake, caramel and ice cream were the perfect end to a well crafted meal.
The cocktails were on point as well, each with a unique twist on a classic cocktail. I tried the Rambler, which has bourbon, port, lemon and bitters. A take on an old-fashioned, the port added some richness and depth to the smoky bourbon. The Cheshire Mule is a playful take on a Moscow Mule, with magical color shifting butterfly pea tea.
I had a chance to sample some of the bar food as well, and the burger delivers with thick Nueske’s bacon, smoked cheddar and proper seasoning on a soft bun. The hot fried chicken sandwich is perfectly crispy and coated with house-made hot sauce.
“We’re just here to eat, season things with salt and pepper and have some fun,” said chef Russ in describing the attitude in the kitchen. “I don’t want to be pretentious, because that’s how I want to dine. As long as we can make people comfortable and embrace the community. This is the best group of people in the city, they are very laid back and appreciative of what we’re doing.”
Overall, this is a home run – a warm, inviting space coupled with a dedicated and skilled kitchen focused on technique. Too many restaurants these days try to come up with a ‘concept’ and choose a cuisine, but end up falling flat on execution. Chef Russ is having fun in the kitchen, and allowing his team to show off some serious skill. If you’re a foodie in Chicago, you can now add Rogers Park to your destination list. Set your navigation to the Loyola Red Line stop and come have one of the best meals in the city.