Al Dente | Restaurant review
A seasoned chef sets up shop on west Irving Park.
The story about Javier Perez is that he’s worked for some considerable Chicago talent: with Tony Mantuano at Tuttaposto and, later,; with Michael Kornick at Marché and ; with Todd Stein at Cibo Matto. The expectation at Al Dente, Perez’s first solo venture, is that the food here will be the culmination of all of his experience—dishes that have hints of the chefs he has worked for, plus whatever Perez can throw in himself.
It turns out that approaching the restaurant this way will only lead to disappointment. Yes, Al Dente sticks out on West Irving Park as one of a few midscale restaurants, and from what I saw the neighborhood has already embraced it: People descend in big groups and drink lots of wine (Al Dente is, for now, BYOB), congregating over Perez’s consistent, solid food, and having a perfectly fine neighborhood restaurant experience.
That experience, however, is defined by its limitations. Most chefs have worked for a big name or two (just try to find a cook who hasn’t worked at least one day for Trotter, Achatz or Bayless). But they do not all learn the same things. The good ones learn superior cooking skills. The best learn how to take those skills and translate them into a food language of their own.
Perez clearly is skilled technically. His lamb chops could not have been more perfectly medium-rare. His fresh corn polenta with wild mushrooms is soft yet textured, the opposite of mush. The gnocchi—this, honestly, could use some work. But the point is not that the gnocchi could have been lighter, but that it was served with a boar ragù, and that gnocchi with boar ragù is a dish that seasoned diners have seen again and again—probably at Spiaggia, Tuttaposto or Cibo Matto. To that end, very little, if anything, is surprising on this menu. If Perez has the chops to not only emulate his teachers but to move past them, he has not demonstrated that here yet.
Except maybe with dessert. It’s a throwaway course at Al Dente (there’s cheesecake, and it’s brought in from elsewhere), but one evening a housemade option was available. It was a bread pudding made with squash. Not the worst bread pudding you’ve had, and definitely not the best. But the unusual addition of squash hinted at something Perez should tap into: an innovative instinct, a voice of his own. In short, something much more enticing than his résumé.