There is nothing like Bronzeville Winery. Not just in the historic Black neighborhood, or the South Side, or around Chicago, but anywhere.
It is a restaurant, not a winery, offering modernist American comfort food and craft cocktail menus, but indeed there is an uplifting wine list. Two years in the making, celebrating its grand opening April 20, it’s the culmination of 100 years of community culture. It screams of and into the future.
At least it does for now.
Bronzeville Winery just lost its opening chef, Whitney McMorris, who made an impressive debut after working at The Aviary among other notable restaurants in the city. Her breathtakingly beautiful dishes should remain until this fall, with some summer specials, according to Cecilia Cuff, co-owner with Eric Williams, who also owns The Silver Room and hosts the annual summer block party that has become an iconic event of the season.
You’ll still find the seared watermelon steak, hopefully executed as precisely as I found on my first visit the week after McMorris left, but now missing its crown of fried watermelon rind threads. The vegan entree has become a signature dish, evocative and complex, yet with a surprisingly simple back story as I learned when I asked the chef. She may no longer be in the kitchen, but her work pulses as powerfully as that of the architects, artists and designers who created the space.
McMorris was inspired by the watermelon and feta salad that’s become a staple salad of the season. She didn’t just cook the melon, or compress it for that matter, in the style of The French Laundry from the summer collection of 2005.
“I cooked it about 30 different times,” said McMorris about her recipe development process. “Just figuring out different ways to cure it and change the texture and to smoke it and all of these different things.”
And then finally, it was done.
“It was beautiful,” she said, rightfully so. “I won’t say it was similar to an actual steak, but essentially you got the umaminess.”
Ultimately McMorris cured watermelon slices for two days in salt, to pull out some of the moisture and change the texture into something more meaty, then smoked it to order with apple wood in a smoke infuser (the Smoking Gun, invented by PolyScience in Niles, by the way).
“And then they’re seasoned with kosher salt and coarse black pepper, and hard-seared in very hot oil to get a crust,” she said. “I like to say it’s simple, but I guess it isn’t.”
I was not expecting the crisp blackening and the smoky aroma that evoked not only the legendary Bronzeville barbecue house Honey 1 just up the street, but chef Grant Achatz’s pheasant speared on a smoking oak leaf branch, which I made during a long-ago stage at Alinea.
“There would be times when the guests asked to speak to the chef,” McMorris said. “And they’d say, ‘You’re Black, but you’re not making Black food.’ They expected macaroni and cornbread, and collard greens, but that isn’t at all what I come from. I come from Moto. I come from Acanto. I come from Terzo Piano. Fancy places, I guess.”
Yet so much of the menu seems to be a reclamation and reinvention of so-called Black food, such as the sweet potato ribbons, a wild sculpture of deep-fried delicate curls to be shared with a dill creme fraiche dip, which you will covet as your own.
The dish was offered as a complimentary starter for a few months after opening, free on my first visit, but not on my second, though still available to order. The choice of sweet potatoes struck me as an ingredient possibly chosen for its cultural significance, but McMorris said it was not.
“When I first walked in, the first thing I saw was Lucy Slivinski’s art,” said the chef. “I won’t call them chandeliers, but hanging pieces that sort of look like nests, so the ribbons mimicked them. That was a shoutout to Lucy as a woman, as an artist and as a part of Bronzeville Winery, to give her flowers.”
I had to wonder, though, how much of McMorris’ history with Black cuisine had created a menu that rebelled against it.
“I would say that is a perfect way to explain it,” she said.
The salmon plays on the fish and fries you might find across the street at Golden Fish & Chicken, one of the many fried chicken and fish fast-food restaurants on the South and West sides of the city. But here, the remarkable Ora king salmon dish, sauteed impeccably to your desired doneness, skin-on as God intended, gets garnished with crunchy housemade potato chips, then finished with a tableside pour of briny dashi, but no trout roe as promised on the menu.
The BW burger, a 6-ounce wagyu patty, covered by an avalanche of melted Comte cheese, with a side of judiciously truffled fresh-cut fries, also comes cooked perfectly as requested.
The consistency is a testament to new executive chef Dondee Robinson, sous chef under McMorris. He previously worked at The Drake Hotel and The Walnut Room.
There’s no pastry chef, so he leans on lovely platings of seasonal slices from Justice of the Pies, whose founder Maya-Camille Broussard was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award this year.
A lemon lavender butter cake was actually created by Cuff, and proved to be an ambitious deconstructed dessert with tender crumbled cake scattered with bee pollen, but unfortunately far too many dried chamomile flowers.
The Uncle Yams, an Old-Fashioned cocktail by mixologist Ian Julian, could almost serve as a finale, mixed with a housemade sweet potato syrup and Uncle Nearest whiskey, though it’s finished with a marshmallow spear that’s seriously under roasted.
The gnocchi, generously heaped with fat scallops and plump shrimp, were tough rubbery nuggets overwhelmed by an American-style goat cheese Alfredo sauce.
The steak, a 6-ounce filet mignon seared and tender, might be the main event for some, but it’s the surrounding edible garden that stole the spotlight for me.
“I wanted edible soil, edible mud and all the greens and flowers that grow up in it,” McMorris said.
She roasted mushrooms for the mud, dehydrated them for the soil, and while developing the dish in spring, she chopped up white asparagus.
“To add those little bits of white mineral that you see in soil naturally,” McMorris said. “But I’m not just putting garnishes on dishes without intention.”
So for the steak dish, she chose purple pepper flowers to echo black pepper, an elemental condiment to meat. McMorris credits inspiration to a dish by Richie Farina, then her executive chef at Moto, now sous chef at Ever restaurant.
I can see the delicious, modernist lineage, but I have some sense there might be a connection to another dish: the gargouillou by the legendary Michelin-starred French chef Michel Bras. His evolving scattered palette transforms intricately cooked and raw elements, farmed and foraged.
Somewhere in McMorris’ culinary DNA, there’s a link I’ve yet to trace, of which she’s unaware. Her edible garden is so much more, with bolder textures and flavors, somehow capturing the stolen open spaces reclaimed by nature across so many streets in Black communities.
“I planned to change that seasonally,” she said. “For winter, I planned to have edible snow.”
The seared watermelon should be required eating at the Bronzeville Winery, so everyone can experience the touch of vegan feta acidity and serrano pepper heat playing elegantly against the lush infused fruit. It is, however, too much and not enough as a main dish. I’d like to see it evolve, as with the menu as a whole, perhaps paired with the astounding and minimalist seasonal watermelon BW sangria by Julian, or a glass of wine selected by renown sommelier Derrick C. Westbrook.
“There is nothing like Bronzeville Winery,” said its former chef, speaking outside Venteux on her first day there as its new executive chef, whose young legacy and longing still linger at this promising new project — one with another 100 years of neighborhood history behind it.
4420 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
Eat. Watch. Do.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life … now.
Open: Wednesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to 11 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 2 p.m. to midnight
Prices: Shared plates, $6-$23; entrees $15-$45; dessert $8-$14; 20% gratuity automatically added
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with restrooms on single level
Tribune rating: 2½ stars, between very good and excellent
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.