An impressive number of Chicago restaurants offer gluten free fare, but usually there's something that compromises the full dining experience. You can only gaze longingly at the bread basket, you discover the fries were cooked in the same oil as the battered onion rings, or you realize the only dessert offering is a sad bowl of sorbet.
At Senza in Lakeview, the entire restaurant is gluten free, from the amuse-bouche to the beer. The best part is that you continually forget because the menu reads like a compilation of culinary favorites. Executive Chef Noah Sandoval deftly omits gluten without sacrificing originality or flavor. And that bread basket of small toasted squares isn't a token gesture, but a harbinger of the tasty pleasures in store.
Diners can choose from two tasting menus or the à la carte options. The list is concise but well-edited. There are two pasta dishes, two seafood options, and two meat entrees, along with a single salad, a soup, and a decadent foie gras plate.
The roasted pumpkin soup ($9) captures autumn in a bowl, from the ochre hue to the fragrant broth. The dish is enlivened by celery foam, a crunch of pomegranate seeds, and tender bites of lobster. Pickled pear comes perched on the rim with spiced pumpkin seeds, adding a decorative border that tastes best in the bottom of the bowl.
The scallop ($11) is perfect for sharing, but you might want your own. They arrive as a plump trio with salty, caramel colored crusts atop a tangle of pickled choucroute (tangy dressed sauerkraut). The cooked apple cubes seem like an odd addition until you contrast the sweet and savory, wishing somehow that another scallop plate would suddenly make its way to the table.
The description of the halibut ($28) reads like foodie haiku: plum/maitake/pecan/black garlic. What arrives on a stark white rectangle is a piece of well-cooked fish dressed up with fancy accessories. Somehow the disparate combination of tart pickled plums, maple glazed mustard seeds, hearty mushrooms, and a flavorful smear of garlic sauce create a cohesive, delicious dish. The only complaint was its lukewarm temperature, a minor distraction from eating enjoyment.
While sorbet is often the consolation prize of a dessert menu, at Senza it's a winner. The compressed melon ($8) delivers far more than a frozen scoop of citrus ice. The sorbet contains Prosecco and is dusted in lemon powder and ginger tapioca pearls. Julienned slices of ripe honeydew and gelatin melon cubes decorate the basil and cantaloupe sorbet, adding texture and dimension to a dish that usually ends in a puddle.
Although Senza is characterized as a gluten free restaurant, it's actually for everyone. The absence of gluten is a compelling reason to come, but the cuisine is the best reason to come back.