Duck breast at A10 (Jason Little / For RedEye )
1462 E. 53rd St. 773-288-1010
Rating: 3 (out of 4) Off to a good start
I have never found a fly in my soup. But, I have had a glass of red wine spilled on a new white dress shirt, found hair in my food and had a plate of ravioli dumped in my lap. And yet, I don't know if I've ever been as annoyed with a restaurant as I was on a recent Sunday night at A10, the newest dining destination from Matthias Merges (formerly of Charlie Trotter's, currently owner at Billy Sunday, Yusho) in Hyde Park.
You don't mess with my Sunday evenings. They are sacrosanct. Sunday is the day where I put the ills of the past week behind me prepare for the week to come. Maybe you go to a movie, watch a ball game or read 50 shades of something on your couch in a threadbare Snuggie, but for me, the great escape is going out to a restaurant for a Sunday dinner. Someone else does the dishes, the wine flows and I get a chance to enjoy a dining room outfitted how I wish my own place would look if I had unlimited cash to blow on designer furniture. And then there is lots of great food cooked by great chefs, unless, of course, there is no dinner.
Brunch: It's what's for dinner
This particular Sunday, I had a hot date. We had coordinated busy schedules and canceled other plans to hit A10 together. Earlier in the week, we'd both drooled over A10's French and Italian-skewing dinner menu. The restaurant is named after the autostrada or A10 highways that cut through France and Italy: it's is inspired by Merges and his wife, architect Rachel Crowl's, travels through the region. Merges and his chef John Vermiglio (Graham Elliot Bistro, Bravo's "Around the World in 80 Plates") had come up with a spectacular selection.
When we arrived at 7 p.m., we had visions of bucatini carbonara and boudin noir dancing in our heads, but we were given a brunch menu. We assumed it was a mistake. Our server assured us they only serve brunch on Sundays, and that we weren't the only ones who'd complained. We asked if the website mentioned this. It didn't. The people at the table in front of me complained that the brunch dishes were overpriced. It's true that $18 for a fried oyster eggs Benedict felt a little steep, but no one I know in town is making such a soft and fluffy English muffin, poaching eggs so expertly or whipping up as silky a hollandaise. Pumpkin brioche ($6) was dry and tasted like it had been sitting around all day; I'd have preferred a Cinnabon. The people at the table behind me complained too, but that's because they were vegetarians and had a tough time finding anything on the limited brunch menu they liked that didn't have meat. But, as with people, it's not the best moments that define a restaurant. It's what they do in the worst moments that truly inform.
The taming by the crew
Vermiglio came out of the kitchen and offered to cook an eggplant gratin (which was not on the brunch menu) for the vegetarians. Front-of-house manager Malcolm Simkoff took a savage verbal beating from the price complainers, smiled graciously and offered to adjust their bill. Though that pumpkin brioche wasn't great, Simkoff had brought it to our table gratis because there was a problem with another dessert my date and I had ordered. He then heard my tale of disappointment and anticipation of a romantic, relaxing dinner and comped much of our brunch bill. When I spoke with Merges a few days later, I told him I was a little disappointed. "You and everyone else. We got killed," he said. "We wanted to do something a little quicker for Sundays. We're working on it. We'll likely create a card of maybe five extra dishes [to broaden the menu] on Sundays." The A10 team also has since changed the website menu title from "Brunch" to "Sunday Service" to indicate the special menu.
A10 dinner No. 2
I still wanted that dinner menu, so I returned three days later. Just as I was about to be seated, Simkoff recognized me from Sunday's meal and said, "I'm so glad you're giving us another chance. I hope tonight is better." It was. Tender tubes of housemade bucatini ($14) coddled a 60-minute egg (yes, 60 whole minutes—it's cooked at roughly 60 degrees Celsius until the white just sets, leaving a warm, velvety yolk) and tiny crisp polygons of guanciale, aka pig jowl bacon, from Benton's in Tennessee. The whole thing was soaked in cream and showered with biting red pepper. Packed with so many comforting carbs, I'm pretty sure I could have convinced a group of chain-smoking, diet-disciplined supermodels to wolf this down.
Though it sounds like a cool French film, boudin noir ($22) is blood sausage. I know that sounds like a dare, but the A10 version, a custard-like pork sausage spiked with sweet spices was a beautiful encased meat slathered with a creamy swoosh of hollandaise. Vermiglio added a nice bit of brightness in the form of a side garnish of pickled squid.