Standing Room Only: Wisma
131 North Clinton Street, Chicago, IL 60661 (map); 312-575-0306; frenchmarketchicago.com/vendor/wisma
The Short Order:Prepared sandwiches and salads to go.
Want Fries with That?No fryer here, put you can get a salad.
Seats?None at the stall, but loads of seating in the back of the market.
A little over a year ago chef John Des Rosiers opened Wisma, a grab-and-go food outlet next to Inovasi, his acclaimed fine dining restaurant in suburban Lake Bluff. Never one to make a small plans, Des Rosiers declared from the beginning that other Wisma locations were already in the works, and that he wanted to "change the way we all eat at home." This is all well and good, unless your home happened to be nowhere near the North Shore. But with his move into the Chicago French Market in the West Loop a few months ago, Chicago residents now have a chance to see what Wisma is all about.
Of course, this kind of chefy to-go operation has a forebear. For years now, Charlie Trotter has had Trotter's To Go in Lincoln Park, which is where I found a perfectly acceptable roast beef sandwich a few months ago. Since Des Rosiers decided to open a vaguely similar concept, and also happens to sell a roast beef sandwich, it only seemed fair to see how the sandwich stacked up.
For what it's worth, the Q7 Roast Beef with Walnuts and Blue Cheese ($7) bests Trotter's version in nearly every way. The roast beef is rare and tender, the bread is soft and supple, the blue cheese is pungent and salty, while the walnuts lend a bit of crunch. Best of all, the ingredients are applied evenly and with restraint. It may be made ahead of time, but holds up well. Oh, and that seemingly non-sensical name refers to the ranch where the meat comes from. (You can read more about the ranch here.)
It doesn't quite touch the hem of fellow French Market tenet, Fumare Smoked Meats—located just down the aisle—but man cannot survive on pastrami alone (though he can certainly try).
The romaine and quinoa salad ($7) proves that the salads are given as much care as the sandwiches. Topped with hazelnuts, feta cheese, and haricots verts, the salad has the look of a haphazard chopped salad, but it's much more composed than it seems. Both the lettuce and the haricots verts are crunchy and sweet, while the quinoa manages to add some bulk to each bite, making it surprisingly filling.
But for every item ready to eat, there is a prepared item that must be warmed up. This may be useful to the officer worker with a break room microwave, but not so much for someone like me who wants to eat immediately. Regardless, I picked up the creamy polenta, mushrooms, goat cheese ($8) for later. Though the directions for warming the dish up in the oven were ridiculously off—the suggested seven minutes in a 375°F oven was actually more like 30—the polenta held up well, managing to stay creamy through the commute.
Is Wisma going to change everything? Well, of course not. But it is good news for the Chicago French Market, which now has another solid offering joining the aforementioned Fumare Smoked Meats and the first Saigon Sisters outlet. Here's hoping it can continue to add shops like this one.