What's it all mean? You've had moments like that, right? You're pondering something—say an idea, a career, your place in the universe, or a new restaurant from a well-known, likable chef—and you think to yourself, "What possible difference can this make to the health of the planet and the salvation of the human race?"
Most of the time, unless you're counting down to a personal nuclear meltdown, you'll give yourself a break and answer: "Easy there, fella. Isn't that a pretty high standard to set for a new 'midwestern bistro' that faces neighborhood competition as stiff as the mighty Flub a Dub Chub's?"
You might imagine, in light of the media's microscopic attention to the personal ups and downs of Dale Levitski over the past few years, that the chef has asked himself those questions a few times. What does it mean that his triumphant leap from the depressive gutter of post-Top Chef-dom to success with the sportive prix fixe fine dining at Sprout led him to follow up with Frog N Snail, a loose, casual daytime cafe/nighttime dinner spot?
It means, for now, that if you show up at 9:15 AM on a weekday, you might have the place to yourself to spread out in a booth with laptop or whittling log and sip away on black gold La Colombe coffee while you contemplate the existential meaning of the restaurant's turkey-cheddar-broccoli crepe. It's a gooey, amorphous, crispy-edged pancake enveloping julienned apples, crunchy red onions, melted cheese, and thin-sliced, deli-style breast meat, supporting a bird's nest of watercress, potato chips, green goddess dressing, and a fried egg. It won't stop a mass extinction event but it might improve your mood.
Dinnertime is different. While regarding a menu featuring personal and shareable appetizers, salads, and entrees, skip watery, unbalanced, and sloppily poured cocktails in favor of the largely midwestern beer offerings. The menu is easier to decode than Sprout's, but at Frog N Snail it's expected that you want something you know, rather than something that's going to spin your head around on its spine.
There is some of the impish creativity that defines Sprout here and there. Whether you're looking at the fried brandade "stix" as sticks of the deep-fried mozzarella type or the supermarket frozen fish variety, they're ultimately hard to place, unexpectedly chewy but not a drag to finish. Or take the chicken ratatouille: pieces of seared young bird over roasted tomatoes and zucchini, while the eggplant and onions are incorporated into a foundational puree. Oh wait, that sounds like ratatouille, but what's this basil-scented bread cube? Don't get it? The dish can be chicken and stuffing too.
Even when they aren't meant to be clever, the dishes at Frog N Snail are like Sprout's in that their appeal is largely visual. That's what you'd expect of a chef who excelled on television, and it's particularly true of the salads and saladlike compositions. They don't always work, but they're brightly colored and lovely, with an abundance of ingredients that are individually fun to pick at. Check out a collection of three types of multipatterned radish slices, which take top billing in what amounts to a charcuterie plate, supporting roles played by Genoa salami, cornichons, and a gob of mustard compound butter. Similarly, you may not see the point of calling thin slices of grilled beef "carpaccio," but the bloodred meat maintains a minerality despite the application of heat. The real allure of this dish, though, can be found on its edges: frilly Lolla Rosa lettuce leaves, thin sections of springy asparagus, and a smear of richly truffled egg yolk on toast. Meanwhile, the lyonnaise is a straight line of bright, contrasting greenery with a jiggling poached (if a bit too much) egg at its midpoint, and the Ossau-Iraty is named for the triangles of firm sheep's milk cheese carefully dispersed with marcona almonds, orange slices, and blots of black garlic among a bush of frisee, red-veined sorrel, and endive.
During my visits it was clear Levitski had his eye on the season and was taking full advantage of what was available. There wasn't much to work with at that point, but he was stretching it out, replaying the asparagus with a panfried barramundi fillet, its crispy skin and oily white flesh lightened with more shrubbery, and a lemony caper-dill aioli. He employs the same leeks and kale from that plate in the signature dish of frog legs and escargot arranged among swampy, cooked-down fennel and green peppercorns. Sometimes he goes too far, bizarrely accenting a briny-tasting double-cut pork chop with fresh strawberries. And sometimes the reliance on seasonality seems self-destructive. I couldn't stop thinking of the blackening, wilted mint crowning an otherwise delicious curried lamb shank tossed with silky gnocchi and melting goat cheese, accented by acidic artichoke puree. That mint was the first and last thing I saw when I finished the plate.
Other dishes seem rooted in a solid concept, but take irresponsible turns. Both a ten-ounce rib eye with frites slathered in poached shallots, pickled mushrooms, and blue cheese and a braised short rib and peppery tenderloin stroganoff lean so far toward the sweet end of the spectrum that it seems inappropriate to depend on them as a main course.
On the other hand, that could be balanced by selecting a dessert that swings the other way: a dull wedge of curry-flavored Breton cake with a side of sweetened carrot slices. This and two other desserts sum up the range of consistency of the dinner experience at Frog N Snail: a chocolate cake and mousse, spackled with potato chips, pretzels, and peanuts, looks like someone dropped a handful of snack mix as they passed the pastry station, but it's hard to find fault in a simple seasonal bowl of strawberries and cream. Some bad decisions have been made in the creation of this menu—but there were some clever ones too, and the sourcing of ingredients would please the most dogmatic locavore.
But what does it all mean? Frog N Snail is probably good enough for its neighborhood but it's not going change the world, or even put much of a dent in the restaurant scene the way Sprout did. But easy there, fella, that's a pretty high standard to set.