The rural fantasy of Blue Door Farm Stand | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

The rural fantasy of Blue Door Farm Stand 

Escapist good intentions abound at the Lincoln Park farm-to-table reboot. But can you suspend your disbelief?

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Clockwise from top: burger, cheese curds, Cobb salad, salmon fillet

Clockwise from top: burger, cheese curds, Cobb salad, salmon fillet

Jamie Ramsay

What are you afraid of? The dark? Dogs? Not making rent? White supremacists? Your own potential? Sickness and death?

Whatever it is, restaurants are in the business of helping you forget your troubles and fears. It's been that way for all time. You wouldn't tear into your fresh kill with the wolves behind your back, would you? Of course not. You'd drag it to the cave and start a fire. The original safe space was the place you went to eat where you wouldn't get eaten. A modern restaurant's job is to put diners in the same primal psychic mind-set.

Some do it with all-you-can-eat buffets: "You'll never starve!" Some draw you in with dreams of luxury and escape: "Travel the cosmos over 24 courses." Still others invite you down on the farm, where the food comes from the back 40, and there's never any rain on the scarecrow or blood on the plow.

That's the MO at Blue Door Farm Stand, a restaurant that existed in a smaller, limited incarnation a few years ago, when it operated blocks away on Armitage, in Lincoln Park, Chicago's most problem-free neighborhood. That didn't last long, and in the interim it transformed itself into a small grab-and-go operation to keep the dream alive until this new spot took shape. It's a bright, breezy two-floor arrangement, with a take-out counter and bar, and abundant white wainscoting and denim upholstery on high-backed Louis XVI-style chairs.

The chef, Rey Villalobos, was summoned from Art Smith's Blue Door Kitchen, the Gold Coast mothership, where he's chef de cuisine. But here he's offering three squares a day instead of two, with weekday breakfast including juice, coffee, fruit plates, oatmeal, pancakes, and something called a "brown line wrap."

Brown isn't exactly an appetizing color to associate with what is, in effect, a breakfast burrito, but at lunch and dinner the menu also offers something called "polite slurps," i.e., lentil or tomato-and-cream soup in a cup or bowl. (I don't know about you, but when I live on a farm we won't slurp our soup at the table.)

The core of Villalobos's Farm Stand menu is salad. Salads for people who don't want to eat anything but salad. They are heart-stoppingly sized salads. If you tried to eat that much pork in one sitting, you'd die in your chair. But it's salad, and instead you're going to eat it and live forever. OK, there's bacon in a couple of them. But swine is forgiven, because these are monuments to arugula, romaine, and kale.

I ate those greens on different occasions in the Farm Stand Cobb Salad, and the Green House Salad, the latter of which pits summer squash, tomatoes, and quinoa against what tastes suspiciously like canned white beans. Somehow, sadly, each of those piles of verdure tasted limp, soft, sapped of crunch and vitality, as if it could've been picked on somebody else's farm, far, far away.

Fortunately there are some pretty wholesome dishes that'll have you patting yourself on the back as you walk out the door. Eat this before summer is gone: chunks of ambrosial honeydew and watermelon tossed with snappy string and shell beans, tiny black lentils, and showered with crumbles of briny feta. This is the sleeper salad on Blue Door's menu. Billed as a "small bite," it's a multisensory composition that slays those vegetative leviathans on the menu.

There's hummus, kale chips, and kale-and-artichoke dip that will surely appease whatever loving God you believe is supervising your existence. But if you want to stick your thumb in his eye, you can sneak out and visit the carny with a pile of battered and fried cheese curds, topped with ringlets of sweet pickled pepper and drizzled with buttermilk dip and your endangered soul.

Of course, there's a burger. What if someone who's given up on a clean life comes in? She's going to want a burger. This one is hot and gooey: two thin, smashed patties with lacy edges smeared with a melted-cheese-and-caramelized-onion slurry that will put you in a stupor.

Otherwise, unthreatening entrees abound, including roasted chicken, seared tuna, and a firm, fluorescently orange sockeye salmon fillet, almost a garnish atop a pile of crispy quinoa large enough to cause a panic in Peru and dressed with sweet charred onions and tomatoes.

Occasionally things go off-script. That's the case with the pork belly steamed buns, fish tacos, shrimp-and-scallop ceviche suspiciously devoid of acid or chile heat, and a murky brown, mushroom-rich soup described as pho, which resembles nothing like any bowl you've ever had.

Desserts run conventionally from brownies and buttermilk chess pie studded with blueberries to a surprising turmeric-and-cardamom-scented panna cotta with a chewy cluster of shredded coconut and pumpkin seeds riding atop.

Escapist good intentions abound at Blue Door Farm Stand. The rural fantasy is convincing only so far as you're willing to be convinced. What's harder to overlook is the kind of uninspired conventionality that should frighten more intrepid eaters.   v

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