Chicago Meets California at Pacific Standard Time
“I feel like I’m in a backyard,” my girlfriend interjected as she ate her brisket, tomato, and corn dish special — a limited time offer, we were told, because the source farm only slaughters a few cows a year.
We were at Pacific Standard Time, the new restaurant entry by Underscore Hospitality/One Off Hospitality and helmed by chef Erling Wu-Bower, himself a Midwest native and Chicago restaurant veteran. My girlfriend’s comment underlined what she feels sets Pacific Standard Time apart in Chicago’s crowded dining scene: fidelity to its inspiration, and her home state, California.
I am hard pressed to disagree. It is rare to find a restaurant so thoroughly dedicated to one theme, and to pull it off as Pacific Standard Time does. Chicago is typically a meat and potatoes kind of town, and so finding an “authentic” steak house is easy. The same can be said for New American food to haute cuisine and everything in between.
But encapsulating an authentically “Californian” theme is something the Midwest, Chicago included, has always struggled to do without feeling campy. Summer House Santa Monica by the Lettuce Entertain You group was the previous best entry; Pacific Standard Time will hang Summer House out to dry and eat their lunch as they do it.
The restaurant was clearly built from the ground up with a considerable amount of thought put behind every aspect, whether it was dining ware or decor. Marble counters, wood chairs, tile tabletops, masonry lighting, and colorful plateware bring a typical Californian restaurant experience east. Even the staff dress code harkens west: denim and leather are prominently seen around the restaurant. The space itself is both airy and cozy and will hold its own in the cold Chicago winters without losing it’s West Coast vibe.
But of course, Pacific Standard Time would not be the hyped restaurant it is without the food to back it up. And the food supports the hype, although it does leave some room for improvement.
Across two visits we were able to try six unique menu items (three entrees, one pizza, and two desserts), two cocktails, and two glasses of wine. Pacific Standard Time is excellent across the board yet with some clear shortcomings that will hopefully improve in time.
The margherita pizza was good, served with red pepper flakes, house made ranch dressing (as profiled here), and grated cheese. The dough was sourdough which lent a pleasantly tangy taste where there usually isn’t one. The rest of the pizza was good but hardly unique or necessarily Californian. Chicago is a tough place for pizza to stand out in, and while PST’s hit what it was going for it is probably worth saving the money and stomach space for the other entree options.
As noted previously, my girlfriend ordered the brisket special, which will likely be off the menu soon. The brisket came served in a broth with sweet corn made al dente, extraordinarily ripe sun gold tomatoes, parsley, and radishes. It was excellent and assembled perfectly. In her words, it was reminiscent of a “backyard meal,” or something easily assembled with backyard-fresh ingredients and expertly cooked meat. The freshness of this dish in particular couldn’t be overstated. One bite of the tomatoes is enough to make you realize how much stale produce is the norm. The ratio between meat and sides was such that there were just one or two pleasant spoonfuls of corn and greens to scoop up once the meat was finished.
On our second visit I had the roasted skirt steak, which my girlfriend had ordered the first time and subsequently raved about. Unfortunately, the presentation and component pieces of the dish had changed visit to visit and I was left slightly unsatisfied with it. At the suggestion of the server I ordered it medium rare, which in a restaurant of PST’s caliber should be a safe bet and the best showcase of the kitchen’s capabilities. But the skirt steak that was served was both slightly undercooked (even for medium rare) and tougher than expected.
The meat’s seasoning was exceptional. It had a crust-like quality that worked well to merge the flavor on the outside with the meat on the inside. But the blood-red meat was visually unappealing and, although safe to eat, was clearly pulled from the skillet a moment too early and led to some second thoughts about my order. The other components were also better the first time around: polenta wedges were previously fingerling potatoes, an aji amarillo puree used to be a pea puree, and the roasted shishito peppers on my plate were a new edition entirely absent before. The new sides worked well together, but when the steak in a steak dish is subpar it drags down the entire entree.
Oddly, the braised pork shoulder I had on my first visit was missing from the menu barely two months later.
Pacific Standard Time’s desserts are worthy of the entrees as well. Pastry chef Natalie Saben came on board after Grace (Curtis Duffy’s three Michelin Star restaurant) closed over the winter; at PST she picks up exactly where she left off. Both the burnt olive oil cake with creme fraiche ice cream and the chocolate tart were perfect ways to close out a fun and tasty meal. Both desserts stood out for the noticeable lack of highly processed sugar. Whatever sweetness was present was due to a respect for each individually sweet ingredient.
The restaurant’s cocktail program is also creative but, as with the pizza, is neither noteworthy nor Californian. The wine menu is extensive and it is clear that wine director Zach Jones has done his research to build something that would fit well in any number of Bay Area restaurants. And the beer selection, although small, is partially sourced from California breweries like Stone and Ballast Point.
Pacific Standard Time was hyped in a way that few restaurants are. It has been featured in outlets like Vogue, Wired, Men’s Journal, and hometown publications like the Tribune and Chicago Reader. Most of those profiles were published before the restaurant even opened. And in its first month of operation it hosted Zooey Deschanel, who was in town for the James Beard Awards.
Does the food live up to the hype? Yes. But Pacific Standard Time will still have to convince Chicago that there is more to California than just buzz.
Left to right: Old Fashioned, skirt steak, brisket, chocolate tart.
Stars: Three (out of four)
Price: $$$ (out of four)
Style: New American, West Coast
Atmosphere: Airy, relaxed, comfortable, cozy, loud
141 W. Erie Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Star guide: one - poor, not worth time or money; two - mediocre, worth a visit on occasion; three - very good yet with issues; four - exceptional quality
Price guide: $ - cheap; $$ - affordable; $$$ - special occasion; $$$$ - rare opportunity