Thanks to a certain not-to-be-named hit TV show, Chicago’s food scene has been the subject of much attention recently, and rightfully so – it is a wonderfully diverse, multi-faceted food scene, overflowing with talent. One of the latest to throw their hat in the Chicago restaurant ring is Norman Fenton – a Detroit native who, after years spent traveling and living in Latin America, has opened Cariño in the former Brass Heart space.
Opened in partnership with restaurateur Karen Young – whom Fenton met while they both worked in Tulum – Cariño acts as an homage to the versatility of Latin American cuisine, with the region’s vibrant culture and identity showcased through an immersive (and extensive) tasting menu-style concept.
Although billed as fine dining, don’t expect any OTT pomp or ceremony from Cariño. Speaking to Chicago Eater, Fenton made it clear he wasn’t bothered about image for image’s sake: “Folks could wear shorts if that’s what makes them comfortable.”
[See also: Hakubai Opens at The Prince Kitano New York]
Beyond the menu and space itself, Fenton has gone to further lengths to ensure his own story is injected into Cariño. Part of the restaurant’s yearly profits have been pledged to an organization near to the team’s hearts.
For 2024, this will be Latinos Progresando – a Chicago-based non-profit organization that provides legal counseling on immigration laws and policy. As Fenton tries to secure US citizenship for his Mexico-born wife and children, the personal connection feels all the more significant.
Detroit-born Fenton studied at the Art Institute of Michigan before moving to Chicago where he took up a role at Schwa – an immersive fine dining destination led by chef Michael Carlson. Fenton rose the ranks to become chef de cuisine, a role in which he helped maintain the restaurant’s Michelin star.
After gaining a name for himself on Chicago’s fine dining scene, Fenton embarked on a road trip from Chicago to Mexico where, after a period of traveling, he settled in Tulum. Here, he took on the role of executive chef at WILD Tulum, where he worked closely with owner and now business partner, Young.
Following WILD Tulum’s success, the duo has now taken the destination’s core identity and transported it up north to Chicago. Although very separate projects, there could be no denying that Cariño embodies the same spirit as WILD.
Fenton’s 12 – 16-course menu might follow the traditional small-plate principles of a fine dining tasting menu, but the flavors that guide it are firmly rooted in mainly Mexican but also wider Latin American flavors, techniques and ingredients.
Journeying from a soy-cured salmon aguachile with serrano chili vapor to start, to a con-plant fungus ravioli topped with crispy fried corn silks, Fenton bills his offering as “love letter to his time spent traveling, living, working, and starting a family in Latin America.”
A brief interlude breaks up the savory and sweet courses. Here, Fenton calls on a tradition of after-dinner coffee and cookies enjoyed by his wife’s family – his own version sees a house blend of Latin American coffee beans freshly brewed and served with sherry sugar-coated churros, topped with foie gras mousse.
This flagship tasting menu is all well and good, but what we’re excited about is the self-titled, late night taco omakase. Served only at the seven-seat chef’s counter, this experience draws from the traditional Japanese concept of omakase, whereby there is no set menu and chefs conjure up dishes based on daily ingredient availability.
Cariño’s Mexican-inspired take will see guests served eight to ten courses of ‘elevated’ taco. With the masa (a Mexican maize dough) ground in-house and cooked to order over a traditional comal, these seatings promise to add a new level of sophistication to the beloved taco.
Bolstering the food menu is a carefully put-together beverage program. The exclusively Latin American wine list is curated by sommelier Richie Ribando (previously of Next and Smyth), while Denisse Soto has called on her upbringing in Mexico City to infuse Southern American flavors into classic cocktails. Expect the likes of a Manhattan made with Mexican whiskey, and a pisco sour-like serve that uses Patagonian spirit, Trikal.
Young has spearheaded Cariño’s interior design, with an open-plan layout that incorporates space for 20 guests, including the seven-seat chef’s table. The moody dark green walls are dotted with hand-selected artwork, much of which has a personal connection to the team, while plush velvet banquets add a luxe feel and low-hanging terracotta lights encourage an intimate atmosphere.
Cariño, 4662 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640, carinochicago.com