Al Dente: to the tooth 

A Spiaggia vet stakes a claim in an underserved northwest-side neighborhood

Lamb two ways and fennel salad

Lamb two ways and fennel salad

Eric Futran

If this happens one more time it's a trend: seasoned Spiaggia vets targeting underserved neighborhoods and, against the odds, proving there's plenty of appetite for colonization. Javier Perez has flown a career arc not unlike the folks who recently opened Berwyn's wonderful Autre Monde. He got his first kitchen job washing dishes at Tony Mantuano's Tuttaposto and eventually made line cook at Spiaggia, along the way putting in time at Marché, MK, and Cibo Matto before quietly going solo in this defiantly unhip neighborhood just off the Kennedy.

It isn't that there's nowhere to eat in Old Irving Park. Smoque proved that, given a good reason, people will actually drive to it, and witness enduring successes as varied as the geriatric-friendly Sabatino's and the lower-profile but commendable Moroccan storefront Shokran. It also isn't the sort of arena that usually attracts chefs with Perez's resumé. But judging from the weekday evenings when I visited, there's a ready audience for it, happy to pack into the low-slung beaux arts storefront and tackle his Mexican-accented but largely seasonal midwestern-Italian plates.

In fact, if it weren't for those flourishes—say, wild roasted mushrooms and polenta sprinkled with cotija cheese, salmon fillets crusted with adobo seasoning, or habanero aioli with the hand-cut frites—you could almost call the chef's style meat-and-potatoes. He administers them only occasionally and with a light touch, in contrast to the relatively sizable and starchy portions, so that what could otherwise seem like just another pair of grilled lamb chops with fingerling potatoes comes with two involtini: thinly sliced eggplant packaging belly-busting portions of braised shredded lamb shoulder. Those make the sort of leftovers I look forward to for lunch.

Initially I couldn't tell how Perez employed "tortilla" in one particular gnocchi preparation—they're made with masa, it turns out—but they were plump and light and not at all gummy, different and yet still similar to the chubby ricotta variety that serve as an ample appetizer sauced with wild boar ragu. But occasionally he goes overboard with the tubers: a deliciously smoky chipotle-seasoned escolar fillet comes with a thyme-spiked potato pancake as gummy and glutinous as wallpaper paste.

And then there's the occasional head-scratcher: those tortilla gnocchi accompany a large shredded pork shoulder "torchon," sliced and seared crispy, with a smear of almond-and-pumpkin-seed mole inadequate to address its dryness. And an otherwise appealing-sounding orange-saffron sauce oversweetens mushy bucatini tossed with enormous shrimp and house-made chorizo.

But when Perez practices simplicity and draws on the neighborhood farmers' market—perfectly cooked filet mignon with hedgehog mushrooms (spelled "hanchog"), green beans, and purple mashed potatoes, caprese salad with thick local tomatoes and milky fresh mozzarella, or a salsalike gazpacho fattened with a dollop of avocado mousse—it shows he's a cook who's paid his dues and can be forgiven the occasional misstep. Even more so when he pulls off winning dishes like a garbage salad of shaved fennel with marcona almonds, Asian pear, cucumbers, tomatoes, Dunbarton blue cheese, and mustard vinaigrette or thick, impossibly tender calamari steaks marinated in guajillo that must have been carved from the Kraken.

After a month and half, Al Dente is still in development—the kitchen can get overwhelmed at peak hours, there's a liquor license still in the works, and outsourced desserts have an institutional quality incompatible with the rest of the menu. But it shows a lot of potential, and deserves to be recognized beyond its neighborhood.

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