Before you even sit down for an upscale tasting menu dinner, a meter in your brain starts calculating whether it’s worth the time and money. And Smyth, in the West Loop, is a tasting-menu-only restaurant. But it’s one of those rare spots where your mental meter will stop almost as soon as you start eating, because a meal here is delicious, thoughtfully presented, and ultimately the kind of experience that reminds you why this type of restaurant exists in the first place.
The first thing you should know is that although Smyth is expensive, you’re not going to have a formal experience here. This is clear as soon as you walk in. The dining room is spacious, but feels a little like someone’s (very nice) family home, with wildflower-filled vases on top of bare wooden tables. There are two open kitchens that look like convincing displays in a home furniture store, and there’s even a refrigerator decorated with crayon drawings. The remarkably good service is loose and friendly, too - you won’t find any synchronized movements, or lengthy explanations of anything (unless you ask). You won’t even get a menu until the end of the meal.
You get the impression that the whole setup is supposed to make you feel comfortable, and this sense of approachability extends to the food. The five-, eight-, or twelve-course seasonal menu (here, we’re writing specifically about the eight-course version, which costs $145-$155) is inspired by the chefs’ experience cooking in Smyth County, Virginia. There are no molecular gastronomy hijinks happening here, but the flavors are still complex, with ingredient combinations that taste both familiar and unexpected. Like, for example, the deceptively simple-looking first course: a raw oyster served in a bowl with an apple granita. The briny oyster liquor mixes with the ice to make the most refreshing slushie of all time, and it’s a perfect beginning to the meal. On the other end of the spectrum is a rich dish of Dungeness crab and scrambled kani miso (crab brains) topped with perfectly cooked foie gras. This could be very heavy, but the crab meat balances the fattiness of the foie, and the brains add a layer of funk that keeps it interesting.
The first few courses are small enough that you might briefly worry whether you’re going to get enough food, but have faith - by the time the largest course arrives, you’ll be full and happy. Then there are the three desserts, which are some of the best things here. Our favorite is the candied egg yolk floating in a pool of soft yogurt meringue. The yolk has a slight licorice flavor and the texture of a soft gummy candy, and the tangy meringue manages to be both airy and softly chewy at the same time. It’s something we’ll probably be thinking about on our deathbeds.
Tasting menus require trust. No one enjoys spending hundreds of dollars on an expensive meal that’s ultimately unsatisfying - but still, it happens all the time. At Smyth, you can feel confident that you’re going to get fantastic food presented in a way that makes sense, all in an enjoyably low-key setting. So make a reservation for your next celebratory meal, and turn off that mental meter measuring your cost-to-enjoyment ratio. You’re not going to need it here.
A shallow bowl filled with a small amount of oyster liquor (a.k.a. the liquid inside an oyster shell), then a raw oyster and some crushed ice that tastes like apples. This is the only dish we were given instructions about how to eat - they suggest that you mix everything together and drink it right from the bowl. We did, and it was wonderful. A light and acidic start to the meal.
On first glance, this looks like a small bowl filled with fancy leaves. But under all that lettuce is the good stuff: buttery shima aji fish on top of rice porridge that gives the dish some heartiness and texture.
This is yet another bowl filled with a small amount of food (the crab, foie gras, and kani miso are all just hanging out together), but it’s one of the tastiest preparations of foie gras we’ve had. Between the sweet crab meat, kani miso (crab brains), and foie, the richness is unrelenting. But it’s a very small portion, and absolutely delicious.
This dish is miniscule - four sections of asparagus spears with four razor clams. It’s topped with “guinea hen juice,” which is like a broth, as well as a little squiggle of sauce made from nutritional yeast, giving it a cheesy flavor. It’s tasty and a welcome palate cleanser after the foie, but our least favorite of all the courses.
We were skeptical about this at first - it’s just a roasted beet sitting on what looks like beet paste. But the char on the beet is delicious, and the roasted preparation gives it a meaty quality we really enjoy. If you don’t like beets, though, you’re f*cked.
This is wonderful. It’s the largest dish, and tastes like something you’d eat at the world’s fanciest farmhouse. The beef tongue is tender, and served with an incredible jus. The brioche donuts are basically very rich dinner rolls. Save one to make a beef tongue sandwich.
There’s a lot going on with this chocolate bar. The chocolate is rich and smooth, and has raspberry preserves inside. It’s dusted with a kelp and shitake mushroom powder, which may sound like a gimmick, but the powder acts as a salty and earthy counterbalance to the sweetness of the chocolate and the tartness of the preserves.
We could eat this forever. The candied yolk is sweet and salty, and the tangy meringue goes with it perfectly. It is texturally fun, and an overall delightful bowl of food.
This looks like a porcupine and tastes like an apple pie with a potato chip crust. A nice end to the meal.