Chicago is nothing short of a foodie’s dream city. With so many offerings in both casual and fine dining, and everything in between, it’s easy to get immersed in Chicago’s food scene. After a lot of research prior to my recent trip, I came across mk The Restaurant (MK). Named after chef/owner Michael Kornick, MK is located in the River North area of Chicago in what looked to be a warehouse originally.
The interior of MK has a multi-level dining room, as well as a loft area for overflow or private events. The space itself is very charming, with exposed brick along the main wall, wood trussing along the ceiling, and neutral colors which balance the natural light drawn in by floor-to-ceiling front windows. The place had a nice buzz to it on a holiday Sunday evening, with most customers seeming to be locals.
The menu is concise and seasonally oriented, so don’t expect a multitude of dining options, although diverse proteins and ingredients are well represented. Appetizers range from $7-17, while entrees run about mid $30’s. The restaurant also offers a 5-course chef’s tasting menu for $80, or $125 with wine pairings. On this spring evening, the menu featured many seasonally appropriate ingredients such as asparagus, peas and soft shell crab.
Before getting too engrossed in the menu, we ordered some cocktails. What’s fine dining without a refreshing craft cocktail, right? I had the “cucumber supernova in the sky”, which was a delicious gin based cocktail with fresh cucumber, sparkling wine, and lemon. The vibrant green creation came in a tall Champaign glass, garnished with a thick slice of cucumber for noshing. Other diners in my party enjoyed the “sweet sixteen” (vodka, elderflower, grapefruit and mint) and the “I’d catch a pomegranate for you” (rum, housemade grenadine, ginger beer and lemon), all of which were very tasty and carefully concocted.
After finally settling on starters and mains, we were presented a chef creation amuse bouche of salmon tartar with scrapes (the green stalks of certain garlic plants). Raw salmon is always so refreshing and truly the best way to consume the fish – this preparation was no different and the scapes were a nice compliment. The bread service followed with three housemade offerings of rosemary focaccia, sourdough and baguette.
For starters we tried the crab toast as well as the foie gras torchon. The crab toast was a small piece of toasted baguette piled high with Maryland blue crab, truffle cream and celery. The crab was very decadent and tasty, properly capturing the delicateness of blue crab. I should have known it would be a small portion (2 pieces) since it was under the “tastes” section, but would have like to have slightly more for the $8 price point. Our fellow diners enjoyed a similar taste, except English peas were the main star instead of crab. I was told it was also very tasty, but again, more would have been nice.
Next was the foie gras torchon (goose liver in cold preparation) with rhubarb Vidalia onion compote, cracked pistachio and apricot crisp. The dish was nicely presented on a slate plate, with the two torchon slices being the main focal point. The foie gras itself was very nice, and of course velvety in texture. The rhubarb/onion compote was a nice contrasting sweetness and sharpness to the rich liver. The watercress was a bit of an afterthought and I would have personally preferred frisee to really break up the richness of the dish, similar to the stellar foie gras I recently had at Aggio in Baltimore.
The tastes and other starters got us really excited for our entrees, which followed not too long after. Choosing just one entrée was difficult, but the seared whitefish with butter poached lobster in sauce Americaine immediately caught my eye. Upon arrival you instantly got the aroma of fresh seafood, which didn’t disappoint. The whitefish was beautifully seared with the skin on, making the skin almost cracker like. The crispy skin was nice with the flaky fish and very tender pieces of lobster tail, claw and knuckle. The classic combination of lobster with the sauce Americaine was superb, and well represented the mk philosophy of new takes on old standards. I also had a chance to sample the 8 oz. prime NY steak with escarole, reggiano, balsamico and truffle butter. The steak itself was very nicely cooked over charcoal to my wife’s specification, although I wish there had been a bit more of a crust on the steak. I would have liked to see a something different than escarole as the side and I didn’t love the thinly shaved reggiano sitting on top of the steak. It would have been more interesting to create a reggiano crust on top of the steak, similar to the short ribs I had at REDD in Napa Valley. The steak was still a great dish, and the NY strip itself was lusciously tender but I thought the dish as a whole was a bit “safe”.
The couple we were dining with settled on the tuna entrée and the quinoa fritter entrée. The tuna dish featured seared sushi grade yellowfin with spinach, mushrooms, potato puree and red wine syrup. The quinoa fritters looked very similar to falafel and was served with a multitude of beautiful spring vegetables, such as asparagus, peas, fava beans and mushrooms. Both plates were visually stunning, mixing vibrant colors in a modern arrangement. I didn’t sample either but I was told that both were excellent dishes, especially the tuna.
You can’t dine at mk without noticing a towering pile of frites flying out of the kitchen every three minutes. There’s reason for that of course, the pomme frites are a religious experience of potatoes cooked in fat (I thought possibly duck fat, but didn’t have that confirmed) and served with a silky truffle aioli. The fries weren’t as crispy as I usually like, but it made no difference – they were still addicting and delicious. Also for the table, we ordered English peas with mint, scapes and ramps. A bit too much butter for my personal taste but still very enjoyable.
The savory options left us very satisfied and very full; however, we weren’t going to leave without sampling some of mk’s desserts. I’m glad we did, since the desserts didn’t disappoint either. Based on its seasonal cooking virtues, I’m not sure if this strawberry dessert is a mainstay at mk – but it needs to be. The dessert featured two small lavender pannacottas with strawberry sorbet, crispy caramel crumbles and fresh berries. The dessert is almost too pretty to eat, but your first bite will quickly slap some sense into you. The combination of refreshing sorbet and berries was beautifully matched with the fragrant and creamy lavender pannacottas, which were some of the best I have had. Caramel crumbles nicely provided textures to the dish, without the caramel being very pungent (a good thing in my book).
I also sampled a trio of housemade ice creams, which my fellow diner selected vanilla, chocolate and coffee. All of which were what you would expect from premium homes made ice cream and all truly encapsulated rich flavors of which they were devised. My personal favorite was the coffee ice cream, which really tasted like an iced latte. Furthermore, we were celebrating a friend’s birthday for which mk decorated her “cake & shake” dessert plate with chocolate writing and a candle. The “cake” component of this dessert was a multi-tier of both milk and dark chocolate layer cake, served alongside a small glass of malted vanilla shake. It was ironic because the cake was bigger than the shake. I’m a big fan of dark chocolate so I really enjoyed the fluffy, soft, rich cake. I didn’t sample the shake but I was told it was very delicious. The sobering moment of the check arriving was greeted with a complimentary taste of small dark chocolate and orange truffle, as well as mini brownie crisps – a nice gesture.
Some other notes about meal as a whole. The restaurant earned some kudos when it printed personalized menus in honor of our friend’s birthday. Those kudos were unfortunately lost in my opinion at the end of the meal, when her dessert wasn’t with the restaurant compliments. I really can’t think of another time in fine dining where this was the case, so certainly a bit odd, but perhaps just an honest mistake. Service was solid throughout the evening and I really liked how upbeat and amiable our waiter was. Our waiter also graciously allowed me upstairs to get a better vantage point for some of my pictures of the restaurant.
All in all, we had a great meal at mk – The Restaurant. Before booking the reservation I was really trying to find a restaurant that featured a contemporary menu, with a strong pedigree of cooking, and with prices that weren’t astronomical. My expectations on all fronts were met, with an interesting space, an intriguing cocktail list, excellent food, very good service, and competitive prices. I think my only real gripe with our dining experience was the minimal creativity in the steak dish and then also the very small portions of the “tastes”. I would definitely recommend mk to anyone traveling to Chicago, as well as Chicagoans who have not yet discovered this gem – props to Michael Kornick and his staff.