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April 5, 2005

Scylla: Compicated cuisine, hold the pretension

Scylla is a nymph of a restaurant—not the formidable hydra its name and recent renown would have us believe. This Bucktown newcomer has used her wiles to entrance many diners since her opening earlier this year. A seafood restaurant in an obscure part of town, Scylla is a surprise hot spot for 2005.

Located in a small, two-story brick house, the atmosphere is surprisingly open and inviting. The first floor is short on room, comfortably fitting approximately 20 diners (and 15 at the bar). The illusion of spaciousness is created via sparse decorations, strategically placed mirrors, and a floor-to-ceiling window facing the street. Simple terra cotta and sage walls keep the effect from feeling contrived, though. The upstairs, while less open than the mirrored and windowed first floor, is cozier than below.

The cuisine is less comfortable, however. There's no doubt that 28-year-old chef-owner Stephanie Izard is talented, coming off of a stint at Chicago's Spring. Her menu is exciting and youthful but, frankly, immature. Her dishes left many in my party wanting.

An escargot appetizer with home-smoked bacon, leeks, and a foamy tomato compote served in five Japanese soup spoons was unbalanced. The bacon's strength overpowered even the combined efforts of the escargot and leeks. House-made papardelle with asparagus and chocolate-mushroom ragout tasted like hot chocolate, displaying Ms. Izard's penchant for creating familiar flavors out of exotic elements. One can fairly question the wisdom in this. Yet the dish was interesting, and split between at least three people, it's a good option for the daring.

A nairagi toro (striped marlin) tartare appetizer with crème fraiche, caviar, and grapefruit was well conceived but poorly executed. The serving had an abundance of grapefruit and not enough caviar. With better proportions, the dish would have been less bitter and significantly improved.

Entrees were generally very good. The halibut with a brandade (cod-potato paste) crust—complimented by Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, almonds, and cherries—was excellent. Perhaps Izard's attempts to create familiar flavors out of exotic pairings may sometimes be wise. The supposed star of the menu—seared scallops with foie gras and mushroom-filled raviolis in a balsamic-orange sauce—was delicious, but grew tiresome. The satisfying, but straightforward and intense flavors became boring.

While Scylla has received certain renown for the foie gras ravioli, the star of the evening was Hebi (billfish similar to tuna) atop a creamy leek risotto with a side of stewed salsify root (tasting similar to oysters), sea beans, and lump crabmeat.

To round off the meal, Ms. Izard offers a delicious match of lemon custard cake with olive-oil-and-thyme ice cream and chocolate pannacotta with clementine sorbet and florentine. And oh, was that ice cream great. I cannot speak for the lavender and various other peculiar flavors, but olive-oil-and-thyme ice cream is superb.

Ms. Izard deserves applaud for her ambition. Cooked seafood in Chicago is a tough sell. In a city that has shown its love of steaks, hot dogs, and sushi, Scylla is a breath of fresh air. She isn't for the big boys and their cigar lounges. Scylla is somehow homey, and who hates home? Thus her reputation, though perhaps not based entirely on cuisine, is somehow still deserved. Scylla is a welcome addition to a city that could use a few more nymphs and a few less hydras.