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Chefs love to evoke their childhood memories with food. But along with weaving narratives of his own back story into Claudia, chef and owner Trevor Teich is looking to you for inspiration.
When completing your online reservation for the tasting menu at the Bucktown newcomer, you provide basic answers about dietary restrictions, along with thinkers such as, “What makes you feel like a kid again?”
What follows could veer so easily into contrite, half-baked theater. Claudia, with its good humor, pulls it off.
“We have a nostalgia program and a nostalgia curator,” Teich said. The answers have predictably been all over the place. Perhaps you have fond memories of crossword puzzles, or maybe you can’t stop thinking about a discontinued wrestling-themed ice cream bar produced in the early 1980s. “We looked it up,” Teich said of the latter. “We made a stencil of Hulk Hogan and put it on a house-made ice cream bar. The look on his face when we gave it to him, you cannot buy that. That’s what we are going for.”
Teich clearly relishes finally having a permanent restaurant space. I would be too, if I’d been operating Claudia as a pop-up since 2013. Over the years, he’s served food out of an industrial warehouse and in a soulless conference room of a West Loop office building. In between, he has worked for some of Chicago’s most acclaimed restaurants, like Nomi and Acadia, along with a stint at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire in Las Vegas.
Now Claudia lives in a pristine, whitewashed worker’s cottage so quaint, it looks lifted from the pages of an unfinished coloring book. “We feel like we have the tools now to be able to offer multiple experiences, capturing what I’ve always wanted to do,” Teich said. Currently, Claudia offers three experiences: an eight- to 10-course dinner in the dining room upstairs ($225 per person), a 10- to 15-course chef tasting menu ($265 per person) with full view of the kitchen behind glass, plus an a la carte menu in the lounge and bar area in the back.
Let’s begin in the bar. The menu includes some American and Japanese flourishes, like shrimp cocktail ($28) and oysters ($36 for six) served with a deeply savory sauce made with sesame oil, soy sauce, mirin and rice wine vinegar. Shockingly expensive, sure, but also some of the finest oysters I’ve had this year.
But the heart of the menu lies in dishes like pate en croute and foie gras torchon, which wouldn’t be out of place at some grand French hotel, circa 1895. “(The bar menu) gave me an opportunity to scratch the itch of cooking a little more straight-up French food,” Teich said. Classic dishes, he notes, but with contemporary techniques and tweaks.
The level of precision, especially for a bar menu, is almost alarming. The radicchio salad ($15) lands in front of you looking like the chefs just tossed some plain leaves on a plate. Turns out each leaf has been so exactly dressed, there isn’t an extra gram more of lemon vinaigrette than needed.
The highlight might be the lobster pie ($48). Plump pieces of sweet lobster swim in a silky-smooth bisque made with roasted lobster shells and “lots of cream,” which is topped with an ultra-flaky round of pastry. Rich without seeming heavy, elegant without feeling fussy, it’s one of the dishes that stopped me in my tracks.
The bar area also allows a front row to watch bartender and assistant general manager, Stevan Miller, work his magic. He has a way of infusing traditionally light cocktails with incredible depth, while opening up heavier drinks. Beware the Chupacabra ($19), which features a smoky backbone thanks to multiple Oaxacan mezcals, but balances it with incisive Japanese shochu. It’s topped with a puff of bonito foam that looks needless, yet adds a much-needed creamy component to each sip. Lost in the Woods ($18) looks like a frilly summer sipper, yet is given husky structure with Lapsang souchong, a Chinese smoked tea.
Teich says he first tried cocktails by Miller at Bokeh in Albany Park and was immediately impressed. “I gave him my card and said come work for me,” Teich said. That was a good call on the chef’s part, as I haven’t been this impressed with a cocktail program in years.
The bar menu is so unexpectedly brilliant, I worried it might accidentally upstage the tasting menu. I grew more concerned after noticing on Claudia’s social media that it was serving many of the same dishes from when it operated as a pop-up.
That includes the Bento, which features four small bites set in a square box covered in what looks like a moss-laden forest floor. All the components are essentially the same as when Claudia operated in the West Loop. The tuna-foie bite dates back to at least 2016. Does it matter that each bite is a textural delight and an invigorating way to start the meal?
What is surprising about the first half of the 10-course dinner is just how central a role seafood plays. Without explicitly stating it, Claudia is as much a seafood-focused restaurant as the now-closed L20 was in its prime. It makes sense when you realize Teich spent time working there with chef Laurent Gras, but his love of seafood goes even further back.
“My parents used to drag me to the Cape Cod Room at The Drake,” Teich said of the closed restaurant in the grand old Michigan Avenue hotel. “They’d say, ‘You’re coming with us, and you have to behave yourself.’ There’s no kids menu at the Cape Cod Room, so I had to eat fish. I fell in love with it.”
The pumpkin course features briny trout roe set atop of a delicate pumpkin panna cotta, while the crab lasagna folds sweet crabmeat between thin sheets of passion fruit gelee. The cod course pairs the exquisitely tender piece of fish with crispy slices of cauliflower. Even the pork course has squid ink in it. “It adds some salinity,” Teich said. “I couldn’t resist adding more seafood.”
The wine list by sommelier Jessica Dennis fittingly favors lighter bottles. I was particularly taken with the ruby red, yet delicate Couly-Dutheil La Baronnie Madeleine Chinon ($13 per glass).
As interesting as many of the early courses are, it was the restaurant’s bread program that floored me. I may have momentarily pondered fleeing with the brimming bread basket, so I could spend the rest of the evening gorging myself on the five different options spread with Le Beurre Bordier butter. While I couldn’t stop eating the crackly mini baguette, the most fascinating option is a speckled green seaweed bread. “We started by putting a little nori in it, and then so much more,” Teich said. “Then we made a seaweed butter and added that in, too.”
That is until halfway through the evening, when you’re given Teich’s signature dish, Snails in the Woods. Inspired by childhood adventures roaming the forests near his home, the crispy tempura-fried snails are lined up in a row with petite flowers and what looks like soil, made from bread and dehydrated mushrooms. Like essentially every critic who has tried it, I found myself startled by every bite. The snails come from Peconic Escargot in Long Island, and if you ask nicely, like Teich did, the owners will raise them on a diet of basil. The snails are shockingly juicy, with a texture and flavor that almost splits the difference between pork and cooked oysters. (Snails are technically mollusks, like squid and oysters, though they don’t live in the sea.)
Even if you have experienced the dish before, know it never stays the same for very long. “The 2017 version is completely different from the 2021 version, and it will be something else in 2025,” Teich said. This version features snail caviar, one of those things in life I had no concept existed. “It’s actually the most expensive thing we have on the menu,” Teich said. Any chef would be lucky to have a signature dish this imaginative.
Shortly after, a server dropped off our seventh course, a large wooden box with four small dishes, each with a different, vibrant liquid. What made my dining partner feel like a kid again? Watercolor painting. We spent 10 minutes soaking our brushes in paints flavored with yuzu and ginger and sweeping them across edible paper. Once finished, we ate the results. While certainly not the tastiest dish of the night, it was so whimsical and creative, I still can’t stop thinking about it.
“More than 95% of the diners answer the question about what makes you feel like a kid, and then they forget about it,” Teich said. “When that course arrives, they are reminded, and they have fun. People need experiences right now.”
Claudia certainly is an experience. Part of me wishes there wasn’t such a strict separation between the tasting and bar menus, because Teich’s infectious love of old-school French food illuminates what makes him one of Chicago’s most fascinating chefs. He’s precise yet playful, nostalgic yet driven. Claudia’s permanent location manages to capture all of Teich’s passions, even if you have to go twice to experience it all.
Tribune rating: 3 ½ stars, between excellent and outstanding
Open: Wednesday to Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Prices: 8- to 10-course tasting menu ($225 per person); 10- to 15-course chef tasting menu ($265 per person); a la carte menu $15 to $68.
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.