Tried and Tasted

Uptown’s tasting-menu-only restaurant Brass Heart breaks convention one plate at a time.

By Melinda Sheckells

Photos by Tom Gavin

July 26, 2019 10:00 AM

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In the heart of Chicago’s Uptown, there is something cooking. What may seem like an unlikely spot for a tasting-menu-only restaurant is on the verge of being exactly the opposite. Located on North Broadway, the 20-seat, six-table Brass Heart, helmed by Michelin-starred chef Matt Kerney with partners Vinnie Maiorano and Margaret Eisen, is not only a bridge into a new era for this neighborhood, but it is also a glimpse into the resurgence of Chicago’s fine dining scene—and there isn’t a shared plate in sight.

Progressive yet approachable is Kerney’s signature, whose résumé is just about as good as it gets. After culinary school, he cut his teeth at the legendary French restaurant Ambria before a one-year jump to Maui and then back to Chicago for runs at Schwa—where Maiorano is a partner—and Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle. In continual pursuit of improvement and with the desire to explore, Kerney decided to branch out on his own and bring to life some of the concepts he had always dreamed of. 

First things first, Kerney and the team of the newly formed Brass Duck Hospitality—Eisen is Maiorano’s wife and in charge of design—knew they wanted to start small and self-fund versus having to go to outside investors. Then the group stumbled upon a restaurant space in a burgeoning area, adjacent to the decades-shuttered historic Uptown Theatre, which is undergoing a $75 million renovation, and close to West Wilson Avenue, the new home of Wicker Park icon Double Door.  

Art by music photographer Jesse Lirola dots the walls. “We thought, given the area and all the music venues, it would be important for us to have some rock ’n’ roll artists up on the wall.”

“We always had this idea of doing a French brasserie. We looked at the space and we thought about what we could do. We were like, ‘Well, let’s just do a tasting menu.’ That suits it perfectly. We can transform the [room] and we can really make it our own,” he says.

When word hit the streets that he was going to open a tasting-menu-only restaurant, there was a lot of chatter.

“Everyone said, ‘You can’t do that. No one likes to go to tasting menu restaurants anymore,’ I was like, ‘Look, I’m doing this for me, and challenging myself and I really think people are going to enjoy what I’m doing,’” he says. “Over the past two years Temporis opened, which just got a Michelin star. I opened and then four other people have announced that they’re opening up tasting-menu-only restaurants. I’m just like, ‘Whoa!’”

House-made gnocchi with pickled green garlic, morels, fried capers and wood sorrel

Kerney stands by his belief that people want their own food and that like all trends, the small plates movement has come to pass. It is also evident in the four menus at Brass Heart—a nine and 12-course with vegan options for each—that he is focusing on his culinary DNA.

“The original concept was really kind of a culmination of all the different restaurants that I’ve worked at and all the different inspirations that I’ve had,” he says.”I tend to take lowbrow [dishes] and make them high-end, highbrow, intricate and delicate. I grew up working in chain restaurants and eating Hamburger Helper and mac and cheese.”

Take, for example, the unlikely yet clever rice and beans dish on the menu—Kerney’s staple.  

“I always have rice and beans on the menu. I thought it was really interesting how every single culture in the world, especially through South America, and in Spain, France, Italy, all have it,” he says. “Here’s a dish that is inherently a peasant dish, presented very simply but with huge flavors. I wanted to really show off why rice and beans is such an important dish around the world.” 

The bread course was inspired by his love of the McDonald’s McGriddle and ultimately comes in a form similar to a Korean-style bing bread. It is evident in experiments like this that Brass Heart affords Kerney and his partners the opportunity to really challenge themselves like they never would have with a larger scale, high-volume concept. 

The whiskey and framboise flip with Nikka coffee grain whiskey and G. E. Massenez framboise, raspberry syrup, lemon and egg

“This allows me to kind of play around and use some really intense ingredients that I couldn’t really ever do before, like I got a live king crab in the other day,” he notes. “It was so terrifying, I’ve never broken down a crab that large. I’ve killed my fair share of lobsters and crab and all sorts of shellfish, but when that thing came in I said, ‘Oh my God, what the hell am I supposed to do here?’”

Beverage expert Sarah Traynor takes a hyperfocused angle on the wine pairings, changing it up every two or three weeks—her lens is always focused on small production wineries, family-owned, sustainable and female run.

In addition to nine-course and 12-course menus, Brass Heart also offers vegan menus. 

“Back working at Longman for so many years, I hated when I would get vegans in,” he says, noting that he doesn’t like to modify dishes with processed ingredients or wheat proteins. “That’s not good food. [At Brass Heart] I wanted to do vegan dishes that would be a great way to avoid a lot of allergies as well—dairy allergies, egg allergies and others. We are able to offer something that no one else is doing—find natural binders, things that are sustainable that aren’t some weird highly processed thing.”

Ever the innovator, Kerney expresses tremendous passion for his present endeavors but isn’t shy about sharing that his eye will continue to be on bigger future prizes.

“We really went into it with all our hearts. This is going to be our first restaurant that we ever do together; it’s kind of our heart, so we should call it Brass Heart,” he says. “I don’t want to start talking too early, but in a dream world, in a perfect world, we’d get to open up our large French brasserie. I’ve always wanted to do the 150-seat restaurant that just pounds out steak frites.”

Pannicelli with caramelized onions, egg yolk jam, crispy chicken skin, fava beans and chicken jus