Cibus: Alberto Lombardis Newest Restaurant Follows a Comfortable, Well-worn Path
It has always been a point of envy how gracefully Alberto Lombardi's restaurants blend casual comfort with a strange sense of pretense. His sort of crowd enjoys homespun simplicity, from the bistro feel of Toulouse to Taverna's everyday vibe—just as long as the place doesn't get bogged down by suburbanites in search of a destination experience.
Perhaps that's what happened to Pescabar: too many loud and unfamiliar faces. The kitchen, after all, was no better or worse than any of his other restaurants.
But I've never known which came first until now, the informal appeal or palpable neighborhood-only atmosphere. Because of its size and visibility, Pescabar needed to be a destination to succeed. His long-standing West End location, 311 Lombardi, shut down—well, was shut down after he stopped paying rent—in the long wake of 9/11. Transient crowds want to be wowed, and his restaurants are at their best when they satisfy more modest expectations. The chicken and egg conundrum is solved.
Which brings us to his latest venture...
Cibus sits in the squared-off labyrinth that is NorthPark, a relatively safe and vaguely ritzy shopping mall. As a restaurant, it's very cozy and warm, although you have to peer behind the bright pastels of the gelato bar to find the dining room. This lends the necessary "in the know" status, as does the maitre d', who before my first visit gave loose directions of the "right at Ed Finster's place and cross the bridge that used to be painted silver" variety in broken English when I called for reservations. Upon arrival I told the same person "I'm a little early." She, however, insisted I booked the table for later in the evening.
No matter, my guest also fenced with the same person on the phone—arriving on time for the later slot as a result. Good start.
Now, Italians know how to begin a meal. The antipasto platter at Cibus promises something special, piled with cured meats and puffed squares of beautifully seasoned bread. Thick slices of salami burst on your palate, intense and silken at the same time, bits of fat embedded in the minced sausage yielding their essence slowly, oozing a lingering meatiness that coats the tongue. Piles of prosciutto crest sharply, peaking in tartness, then crashing into something woody and smooth as the wave of flavor settles. And this isn't even meat of noteworthy origin, or at least my server failed to wax on about it as he worked through the "this is" spiel. But it tastes like Parma, and could there be anything better? Well, mortadella may be the real gem on this plate. For those familiar only with processed American bologna—so named because the light, pasty pounded meat originally hailed from Bologna—this is surprisingly robust stuff. Studded with pepper, pounded into form alongside what feels like cilantro, broken by cubes of sepia-toned fat, piquant and savory flavors jostle for control of each sheer portion.
This is the kind of plate that puts hair on a man's ears. And he accepts the gristly feature gladly.
Unfortunately, the antipasto platter is a highlight rather than a pre-meal conversation starter. Not that the kitchen ever sinks too far, mind you. Everything else I sampled just falls into that well-known Lombardi middle ground—the comfort zone, as it were.
Set against whole herbs and heirloom tomatoes (pretty ripe, for this time of year), burrata cheese should be a memorable experience. But the porcelain-colored cheese is a letdown, missing the signature flow of milky liquor when broken, as if past its prime—drained of life before serving. Understand that aficionados anticipate the splash of rich, buttery excess created by the leavings of mozzarella and panna. It's just not there, although the kitchen attempts in vain to replace this divot, this visceral sensation, with ready spurts of very nice olive oil, pungent and grassy. But how dare they? And the texture reveals further flaws, as gritty pocks of petulant curd separate, dry and indifferent, in your mouth.
Presumably this is a one-off, a bad batch unleashed on customers. To be deprived the pleasure of burrata, though—well, there are few disappointments greater. Rove escaping his comeuppance, baseball in the hands of Bud Selig—but that's about it.
Nothing wrong with the pasta course. Butternut cappellacci, for instance, resists the bite slightly before gushing forth a saccharine blast of squash. Sprinkled salt and a dusting of sour cheese mean to counter this—and do, to some extent. Eventually, however, the dish succumbs to a monotonous pattern, dominated by the thick filling. You must grant pasta some repetition; risotto is another problem. I ordered as starkly as possible: no meat, no additional pepper, only slender shavings of Parmesan to break up a muggy, seeping reduction. Oh, the construction was just about right on, each bite unveiling moments when stock, white wine and the shrieking sharpness of cheese step forward. But the rice slumps into depths below al dente. Sodden and lacking any real "to the tooth" fight, it proves unable to spark the little nibbles of contradiction that make risotto somewhat interesting. Instead, the bowl becomes one drawn-out, consistent and filling thing.
Such is the best of Lombardi restaurants: unchallenging, yet just satisfying enough that if the atmosphere thrives, people will return—and often. Try weeks later recalling the particulars of any one plate, though. The grilled salmon certainly offers no opportunities for complaint. Tender, the flavor peaking above a bed of so-called couscous, it would be right and memorable but for a smacking, tacky character cooked into the fish—perhaps sticky residue from a few minutes too long in the oven, allowing veins of fat to melt away into the pan. Beef tenderloin generates some initial wonder as the kitchen coaxes soft, delicate texture from sub-prime meat. But the flavor lags, more dusky and flat than nutty. Instead of a beautiful hatching of flame cutting dark scars of intensity into the skin, everything turns out gray and sickly...absolutely fine by European standards, mind you, but hardly competitive in a steak-driven market.
Don't get me wrong—it's good. The kitchen staff shows remarkable reserve in seasoning, which would allow better beef to surge across the palate. And they falter in saucing the steak, letting it wallow in a harsh, tannic wine broth that cries for about 10 more minutes to improve in the pan.
Not much of this matters, really. Lombardi knows that small, neighborhood restaurants thrive if staff members bow to the guests, treating them in subtle measure as if they own the space. He's a smart restaurateur who has shut down more venues than most ambitious types ever hope to open.
Cibus is an expedition into un-Lombardi-ized territory. Some such ventures succeed, some fail. But the cooking remains the same.
8697 N. Central Expressway (inside NorthPark Center), 214-692-0001. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. (Café open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a .m-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday). $$$
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