When Steven Redzikowski and Bryan Dayton followed up their highly acclaimed Oak at Fourteenth with a second restaurant, they christened it Acorn, because it shared Oak’s DNA without being an exact replica. Now Acorn is dropping its own little acorns, as young talent moves up and out from that award-winning kitchen. Exhibit A: Marcus Eng and Samuel Charles, who met at Acorn, later worked side by side at the Nickel, and were tapped to build the food program at the Way Back before it opened in West Highland last year.
At Acorn, Eng and Charles were witness to some serious mojo. You don’t work for a repeat James Beard Best Chef Southwest nominee like Redzikowski without learning a thing or two, and from their time there, they took away lessons in sourcing (careful), work ethic (dedicated) and menu design (global small plates). With those as a springboard, they’ve helped create a place you’ll want to visit for an entirely different quality: its authentic, untethered, you-be-you freedom.
Their offbeat menu doesn’t force you down any one path. You can eat small or large, share or not share, play it safe or throw caution to the wind. Roast half-chicken comes cozily adorned with whatever’s in season, including some kind of creamed green. Scallop crudo, glistening with nuoc cham, is etched with zigzag lines of baby mint and cilantro. Green-garlic soup, potato-free and as tender in flavor as in texture, spills out of a squat pitcher over cairns of crème fraîche and trout roe. Pork loin chops hold down a large-format entree that’s truly large, with heaps of lentils treated like baked beans, spicy and sweet in their honey-and-Calabrian-chile glaze.
Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) are crisscrossed with housemade Japanese mayo amped with dehydrated scallop powder, not MSG. Fish of the day — bycatch of the day, actually, so you can sleep easy knowing you’re doing your part to save the oceans — perches on a pile of lemony wheat berries as large as a sand dune.
If the menu makes you feel free to pick and choose, that’s because the chefs, too, feel a refreshing sense of freedom. “As long as we can justify it from the responsibility or sustainability perspective, we can put on the menu what we want,” explains Eng, even if that dish is light-years from the owners’ original burger concept. Isn’t that the dream of chefs everywhere, to be freed from the tyranny of boring, high-sales food? You can almost hear previous generations of white-aproned chefs cheering them on, no longer slaves to Caesar salads and steak with rosette-piped mashed potatoes.
The owners of the Way Back brought their own energy to that endeavor. Chad Michael George, Food & Wine’s best new mixologist of 2016; Kade Gianinetti, co-owner of Method Coffee Roasters; and Jared Schwartz, who launched the now-retired American Grind food truck, all met up at Linger before pouring their own collected experience into the Way Back, the first of what they hope will be a series of hits. The trio launched American Grind in Avanti this winter; a sibling restaurant, Wayward, is projected to open this fall in the former home of Zengo. With these collectively capable hands — augmented not just by Eng and Charles, but pastry chef Maya Tull-Thompson — it’s no wonder that the Way Back quickly became a cultish bar and a slightly less cultish restaurant.
Like many things that capture our imagination, however, the Way Back’s popularity can’t be entirely explained by the food alone. What comes out of the kitchen is very good, but it won’t be the absolute best fish, chicken or vegetable dish of your life. Calabrian glaze can be overly sticky and sweet. An early version of garlic soup was bland. Pot de crème was runny, and once the bycatch seemed as fried as a fish stick. Still, when you leave this adventurous little spot, your evening will be ringed with a golden glow. Why?
The atmosphere is one reason: The space feels like a cross between a treehouse and a neighborhood watering hole, with a spacious back patio. Smart, fun cocktails are another, with options ranging from punch and not-too-sweet frozen banana daiquiris to refreshing carrot-yogurt concoctions that taste far better than they sound, given their stiff pour of gin. And don’t discount the self-actualized force that’s palpable in the place: With every bite, you can see the chefs chasing down ideas and trying new things. Li ren choy, a green akin to boy choy, stood on its own in a bath of umami-rich XO sauce one night, and was anchored by shrimp on another. At dinner, green garlic soup was accented with fried garlic pre-set in the bowl before the kitchen crew realized that trout roe worked even better. Yak proved too lean and dry for osso buco, so it became filling for dumplings bobbing in pho-like broth. At a higher-priced, more polished restaurant, where tables are set with candles and servers wear aprons rather than plaid shirts, such incremental changes might make the kitchen seem unsure; here, it seems humble, earnest, eager to explore.
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It’s always energizing to watch as a culinary thought is tweaked and improved, and you get an even closer peek at this process at the Way Back’s Test Table Tuesday. Even if you weren’t at the restaurant on the second Tuesday of the month to try potential menu additions and give feedback, you know that others were, and that awareness turns you into a participant, not just a silent recipient of something the chefs wanted to try. The scallop crudo and pork with lentils came out of this culinary groupthink, as evidenced by the T3 logo on the menu.
The real source of the Way Back’s halo, however, is the part of your brain where memories are stored, sorted and retrieved. When you think back on a night at the Way Back, what you’ll remember are not any specific positives (freewheeling menu, superstar drinks) or negatives (underseasoned dishes, li ren choy that tasted like burnt garlic). Instead, what you’ll recall is the adrenaline rush of the new and unexpected. Your fingerlings, for example, were powdered with an ingredient you’d never heard of before, something called rousong, which your smartphone translated as meat floss. (Meat floss!) And you had gin with carrots and yogurt! And bycatch with wheat berries! First-time experiences — first kiss, first beer, first rousong — have a way of sticking in your brain, amplifying their appeal. And since brains hold especially fast to multi-sensory input, you’re even more likely to fondly remember the fare, which is designed to appeal to your eyes as well as your tastebuds. Again, those potatoes: “I wanted them to look like rocks on bed of grass or dirt,” says Eng. “They were born out of a visual pun.”
Playful, inventive, evolving. The Way Back is many things, but it’s never the same thing. Like that tiny acorn, it’s growing into its own tree.
The Way Back
4132 West 38th Avenue
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through
Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Select Menu Items
Scallop crudo $11
Green-garlic soup $8
Li ren choy $11
Bycatch of the day $19
Pot de crème $8