When your parents visit, your first impulse is probably to reserve a table at The Stained Glass or Koi. Unless you’re a hardcore foodie or a local, you’ve probably never heard of Chef’s Station. It’s not advertised all over town, and one of the entrances doesn’t even have a marquee. However, Evanston’s best-kept secret sits quietly beneath the Davis Street Metra station (its unassuming home for the past 15 years).
Inside, the décor plays off the restaurant’s surroundings, recreating a first-class train car from the 1900s. The lights hang just a few inches above the tables, and the mural of caricatures on the wall is reminiscent of those at the infamous Palm Steakhouse.
But Chef’s Station is much more than just a convenient location with clever décor. It’s all about the food here. When I arrived for a much anticipated tasting of the chef’s signature dishes, I had no idea what I was in for.
Chef José Romero, who has been with the restaurant for 12 years now, is the man behind the curtain. Raised in El Salvador, his original recipes reveal hints of Latin American influence. After many years of dedication and hard work, he is now preparing to take over the restaurant from current owner Peter Mills and eventually hopes to redesign both the menu and the décor (think less 1900s, more 21st century).
From the moment I arrived, the service was impeccable. I’m talking Michelin Star quality. After ordering drinks, we were instructed to relax, recline and enjoy. I was ready to be pampered.
We started with a butternut squash soup. Creamy, smooth and topped with milk froth, it was the perfect start for a meal on a cold November night. As soon as I put my spoon back in the empty bowl, a hand appeared and whisked it out of sight.
When the waiter returned, he presented us with a simple salad of baby lettuce, goat cheese, candied walnuts, roasted beets and honey mustard dressing. No bells and whistles like the milk froth, but the dish showcased the restaurant’s fresh ingredients and attention to detail. The honey mustard provided the necessary zest to set it apart from your typical beet and goat cheese salad.
Next, we were served sea scallops pan-seared to perfection atop rock shrimp and Brussels sprout leaves. A light saffron lobster sauce highlighted the natural flavors of the seafood without overwhelming the delicate vegetables beneath it. I was starting to feel full, but I was not prepared to let such a trivial inconvenience stop me from enjoying this amazing, rare experience.
As I endeavored to regain an appetite, the waiter brought out the star of the evening: a fresh, tender piece of Scottish salmon. I’m not prone to hyperbole, but this was perhaps the best salmon I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot of salmon). Even in the center, where an ordinary chef normally falls short, the fish was still moist and succulent. I tried to pace myself (who knew how many more dishes awaited us!), but I couldn’t resist finishing every last bite.
When I caught sight of the plate of seared duck, I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed. I’ve never really liked duck, and I definitely wouldn’t order it if given the option. But I figured, “when in Rome.” It turns out I do like duck. In fact, at Chef’s Station, I love duck. Again, the execution was exquisite. The slivers of delicately cut meat were coated with a red wine demi-glace and surrounded by smoked mozzarella gnocchi and mushrooms. I was initially skeptical about the pairing, but the tastes melted together to form a harmonious explosion of flavor. The subtle smokiness of the gnocchi accented the savory undertones of the meat, the airiness contrasting wonderfully with the texture of the duck.
Although I was truly full at this point, I figured I could manage room for dessert. My jaw might have dropped an inch or two at the sight of the hazelnut soufflé. It looked so elegantly constructed that I was afraid to spoon in and ruin it. Before I could process anything, the waiter began pouring a chocolate Grand Marnier sauce over the top, which I watched seep into the cracks and drizzle down the sides. Each bite was as fluffy and rich as it looked.
When the waiter made one of his many rounds to check in on us, he looked slightly disappointed. “Are you done?” he asked. Embarrassed, we nodded our heads to indicate yes, we were too weak to enjoy this treasure Chef Romero had so graciously presented to us. We bowed our heads as he cleared the table.
Before leaving, Romero emerged from the kitchen to inquire about the meal. It was obvious that he was eager to please his clientele, and that he cared about the feedback. “So?” he asked. We smiled and shook our heads. There were no words.
Address: 915 Davis St, Evanston, IL 60201
Hours of Operation: Sun-Thur: 5pm to 9pm, Fri-Sat: 5pm to 10pm