Review: The Conserva offers rich, inventive menu

Small plates, big dreams

If it's the little things that make the difference, Conserva chef and owner Matthew Baldridge is making sure to cover those small bases that make diners and drinkers want to return.

Purse hooks are installed underneath the bar. Servers leave the menus on the table so you can remind yourself what you asked for and what the many components of each dish are — this is important in a small-plates place where you're ordering many items. The music playlist is inventive and eclectic; our happy server says, "This is the first place I've worked where I don't have to try to consciously not hear the music."

And the small space, designed by artist Janna Coumoundouros, is sparsely but thoughtfully decorated: a collage of portraits of eyes, a colorful rooster. It does not have the hodgepodge-of -branded-nostalgia-items-hanging-from-ceiling look that set the standard for cool around here for a while.

All this is in addition to attentive and professional service, and some dishes that strain the limits of creative deliciousness.

Conserva opened in mid-December, and as of early January, the drinks list was short — four cocktails, six wines, and eight beers. That is scheduled to change as partner Jarrod Kassis implements his "aggressive and weird program," defined as "no one in town has it yet, or if they do, it's someone I trust." He's interested in skin-contact wines from the Georgian Republic, for example (that's grape skins, not human skins). He's proud of a Swedish-inspired Collins with dill and caraway, and I liked a summery Octo-Daq: Daq for Daiquiri and Octo because octopi are the unofficial mascot of the place; look for the tentacles on the door. It blends a violet liqueur with rum, sugar, and lime for a pleasant sweetish concoction. Other early possibles, to give you a sense, were a raspberry-balsamic gin and tonic and "Irish Handcuffs" with whiskey and Pimms.

This is the third restaurant I've seen in a couple of weeks to put cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, on the menu; let's hope that's a trend. Beers are described in detail ("initial candied apple flavors," "erupts with monumental passionfruit aroma," "a sublimely succulent finish") and range from a $3 Lake Brothers Lager from Corktown, to a cranberry-blood orange radler (part beer, part fruit soda) from Kansas City, to a "stoutish porter" from Greenbush Brewing in Sawyer, near the Indiana border.

To eat with these delights is an odd assortment of snacks. Popcorn with duck fat and rosemary is ample and cheap at $2. I couldn't see any reason, though, for tuna served in its can, even a fancy Spanish brand of individually line-caught fish. Spanish sardines are presented this way too.

Best to go straight to the longer "food" list — which will change frequently. Plates are brought out one at a time, at a nice pace. All are on the large side for small plates, and Baldridge seems to specialize in rich flavors (don't be thinking light and salad-y), including some of my favorite things, all of which are accessible to any chef but which are not super common. The recurring theme was some fairly outrageous richness in the main event with just a hint of contrast from an acidic element.

By far the most outrageous item we tried was a marrow special: roasted six-inch bones (think Flintstones) with wild royal trumpet mushrooms for a tapenade heaped on top. If your only association with bone marrow is transplants, revise your thinking here.

Duck thighs, two of 'em, had luscious crisp skin (the whole point of duck), with more lusciousness supplied by heaps of cream in the the sauce. Pickled grapes provided the tart contrast. A dish of cute ear-type pasta with oxtails went a similar route, bits of meat with cashews and coconut, then piquant currants for balance; it could have used more of the tails.

Two big avocado halves — more creamy richness — were roasted and topped with an egg yolk, then lightened up a bit with gremolata, which contains lemon peel. Breadcrumbs added texture. Goat cheese was served warm in a glass jar, topped with cranberries.

I liked an octopus with big, thick tentacles, rubbed with zatar, the Middle Eastern spice mixture. Likewise a good-sized bowl of Brussels sprouts, cooked with what sounds an unlikely combo: raisins, almonds, olives, and coconut milk, sweet, nutty, and salty against the bitterness of the sprouts.

Desserts will also change with the chef's whims. We got a warm coconut gelatin with bits of pineapple and crumbled lemon cookie, worth saving room for. One plan is to automatically pair a sweet with a corresponding dessert wine, though diners will have the choice to separate the two.

"I'm just gonna cook and stay away from normalcy," Baldridge says.

To read last week's review of Corktown's Japanese eatery, Ima, click here.