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Review: Here's why a table at Fulton Market Kitchen should be a tough get

Against the eclectic art background at Fulton Market Kitchen, chef Chris Curren mixes influences as freely as the decor does. (Sean Leidigh/WGN-TV)

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The restaurant-rich Fulton Market District is full of high-profile restaurants (The Publican, Duck Duck Goat, Roister, Next, La Sirena Clandestina, Swift & Sons and more) and one relatively unknown 3-year-old that deserves your attention.

Barely a half-block north of Fulton Market on Sangamon Street, Fulton Market Kitchen ought to be a tough ticket. Its walls are filled with local art — heck, some of its walls are local art — there's a spacious bar area, at least four distinct dining environments (each with its own decor) and 18-foot-high ceilings in the front room that let you take it all in.

(Photos by Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

The chef, for the last year, is Chris Curren, whose refined-rusticity style has served him well at such previous restaurants as Blue 13, Homestead on the Roof and Seven Lions. Pastry chef Becca Zuckerman, also a Seven Lions alum, was known for her inventive sundaes on Michigan Avenue, and though she's a bit more restrained here, the sweets at FMK are not to be missed.

Many times, when the product on the plate is especially pretty and/or interesting, chefs tend to prefer neutral decor, to focus the visuals on the food. That's not possible here; not only is FMK a riot of color, from cartoon drawings to abstract images, the eye candy also extends to the furniture, including a couple of light fixtures that look like an octopus mated with an architect's lamp, and overhead, where an installation of missile-shaped (or boat-shaped) objects (titled "Strait of Hormuz") hangs 7 feet above the floor.

Managing partner Dani Alonso's commitment to local art extends to a weekly residency, wherein an artist will spend five days creating one or more art pieces in full view of the diners (well, most of them), who are encouraged to engage, in a sort of mashup of a gallery opening and dinner downtown.

The visual onslaught might irritate some chefs. Curren said he finds it liberating.

"Fulton Market Kitchen can accept any kind of cuisine," he said. "You could sit here, and if the menu were Italian or sushi, it wouldn't be unexpected."

Yet "unexpected" isn't a bad descriptor for Curren's menu, which careers from charmingly rustic to artistically precise. You might start — make that you should start — with the foie gras mousse, which arrives wrapped in mandarin-orange gelee, looking exactly like a piece of fruit. (Curren credits chef Heston Blumenthal for the idea.) Judicious knife work yields a thick portion of mousse with a thin layer of citrus, perfect for the sourdough toast that accompanies the dish.

"Foie with fruit is a classic dish," Curren said, "but this is more fun. The next one will be a peach, there will be an apple in the fall and I'm working on a pear."

In a more rustic vein, the "smorgasbord," a shared starter, presents an assortment of house-cured, pickled and/or smoked proteins and vegetables. Components might include gin-cured hamachi crudo with cucumber slices, cured salmon with fingertip-sized dots of creme fraiche, cured and smoked trout tossed in green-onion aioli, and pickled potato slices strewn with caviar.

Simple-sounding dishes impress in execution. English pea salad, with radishes and favas and a restrained mint-yogurt dressing, screams "spring" in the early summer. Roasted and glazed carrots are matched to whipped goat cheese with honey and crushed pistachio. For the bold, there are Brussels sprouts tossed in chile, garlic paste, bacon and almonds; and the aforementioned smoked potatoes, this time served with scallion mayo, make a good shared appetizer or side dish.

Pasta dishes include open-top ramp cappelletti, filled with chunky walnut relish and pecorino cheese, afloat in a pool of brown butter and lemon juice. Twisty busiate pasta mingle with clams and fennel sausage, and coin-size corzetti are pretty much upstaged by pieces of tender baby octopus.

Entrees are more conservative but succeed on flavor. A very good half-chicken picks up umami notes from truffle butter and arrives with a side of roasted root vegetables. Sturgeon is wisely kept simple, accompanied by dill sauce and celery-root puree. The just-gamy-enough and exceptionally juicy venison with a blackberry parade — macerated berries, blackberry powder and blackberry gastrique — and pickled morel mushrooms is a must-order dish, although the roasted vegetables that came along for the ride had been badly oversalted.

Tuna and tripe is surely a surf-and-turf for an alternative universe. On one side of the plate, overlapping medallions of rare tuna, topped with chopped olives and a thin line of olive puree. On the opposite side are alternating pieces of sweet turnip, roll-ups of cucumber compressed in yuzu, and half-dollar-size pieces of deep-fried honeycomb tripe with brown butter. Toss some frisee in the unoccupied center of the plate, and you've got a post-modern salade nicoise.

I've had all four of Zuckerman's desserts, and I'm not sure I know which I like best. There's an artful peanut-butter semifreddo, a puck-size disk accompanied by bruleed bananas, pretzel streusel, chocolate crumble and chocolate shards — a very modern-looking dessert served, I assume ironically, on a very old-fashioned decorated plate. But there's also a delicious strawberry-lychee sorbet with fresh berries, and pieces of meringue jutting from elderflower-laced whipped cream. Zuckerman dresses up butter cake with a caramelized pineapple ring, kiwi-mango salad and spiced syrup, and her cookies and cream features broken pieces of black fudge cake, vanilla-bean mousse and sambucca chocolate sauce. Decisions, decisions ...

One way to eliminate decision-making is to sign up for the Feed Me Chef option, a series of chef-selected courses (five of them and perhaps a little freebie besides) for $65.

That option will let you spend more time on the drinks, assembled by beverage director Liz Pearce. There are some fine cocktails here, including a Mixed Signals that comes off as a sort of smoky negroni, and the Cool Story Bro made with bacon-washed bourbon and fernet.

Parking can be a challenge. There's valet service toward the end of the week and weekends, but some days there's nobody on duty and you have to fend for yourself, sometimes with fingers crossed that parking enforcement workers have gone home for the night.

Twitter @PhilVettel

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