Stress Test

One writer goes behind the scenes with Paul Kahan, Donald Madia, and the rest of the control-freak brain trust at a highly stylized 4,200-square-foot beer hall on West Fulton Market—Chicago’s most highly anticipated restaurant

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“Come in,” says Paul Kahan. “You are about to see why I have dark circles under my eyes.” With that, he ushers me into his Irving Park home, past the dog and two cats, past the record collection in the living room, and into the kitchen, a room that could be called homespun if it weren’t for a professional-size Viking stove. This kitchen is currently ground zero of Kahan’s biggest project to date, a 4,200-square-foot beer hall on West Fulton Market. I’ll call it Project X, since, at presstime, he and his three partners—Donald Madia, Terry Alexander, and Eduard Seitan—had yet to settle on a name. They’ve got until late June, when the place is slated to open.

Standing in the kitchen are Kahan’s wife, Mary, and a tall, congenial guy named Brian Huston, Project X’s intended chef de cuisine. Since January, Huston has been coming over every Monday to work on the menu in the Kahans’ kitchen, a place where the simple french fry requires weeks of experimentation. By early April, they have narrowed down the potential frying mediums: pork or beef fat, heated to 350 degrees.

On the laboratory’s chore list tonight are mussels, and, specifically, finding the best preparation for a Buchot variety harvested in Casco Bay, Maine. In weeks past, the two chefs have sautéed the meaty bivalves in a broth of white Belgian beer. The beer makes sense; after all, Project X will offer about 100 beers in bottles and another 12 on tap. The thinking now, however, is that white wine varieties could work better. The first batch comes out of the pot gleaming black and ready for eating, but a few samples are deemed “short on everything.” More wine. Celery gets tossed into the broth, too—a suggestion from Mary, whose opinion clearly resonates. Minutes later, the resulting second batch is dumped into the bowl: @#$%! Now they’re undersalted and taste too much like wine. The alcohol is adjusted, salt is added, and a third batch is put over the flame.

As Kahan cooks and gently criticizes, I notice in his manner a pattern of threes. For the new establishment, he describes three menu basics: beer, oysters, and pork. And a philosophy based upon three values: food that’s seasonal, local, and simple. He doesn’t mention the most obvious trio; he doesn’t have to, for everyone knows there’s Blackbird on West Randolph, his fine-dining restaurant that puts him among top Chicago chefs; Avec, his crowd-pleasing small-plates wine bar next door; and now Project X, which aims not to strike a balance between its two predecessors, but to go beyond them—in scale if nothing else.

 

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