Alpana Singh Describes Her New Project, The Boarding House

Now Boarding on Wells Street . . .
Alpana Singh tells about the history of her upcoming restaurant, The Boarding House…

 

Now Boarding on Wells Street . . .

Confirming the rumor that her upcoming restaurant occupies the nightclub Cairo’s old space, the sommelier and Check, Please! host Alpana Singh tells about looking up the address in the Chicago History Museum’s collection of reverse directories. “I wanted to see what secrets the building holds,” she says. “[It] had been a tobacconist, a cheese company, and a provisions place, like a grocery store. All of a sudden, I ran into 500 female names.” It was a list of boarding-house proprietors, and although none had lived at the Wells Street location, Singh felt some resonance with the women from that chapter in the building’s history. Thus the name of her restaurant and wine bar—which is on track for a summer opening—became The Boarding House (720 N. Wells St.; no phone yet).
 
The townhouselike space contains four levels—each with a different dynamic and each of which can seat 50 to 100 customers, allowing everyone to dine in an intimate setting. The restaurant will be sommelier-driven: Singh will create the wine program and then collaborate with the chef to create dishes to pair. She can’t get specific about pairings or what the press material means when it says the food is “inspired by a bygone era”—the chef hasn’t been hired yet. “I don’t mean to be coy, but it’s hard to put the cart before the horse,” she says. Singh looks forward to interacting with customers again and sharing her passion for wines and for the hurly-burly of turn-of-the-century Chicago. “Chicago has such a rich and fascinating history,” Singh says. “We’re honoring our own Chicago terroir, so to speak.”

 

Six Questions for Andrew Brochu

Brochu, 30, starts work as the executive chef at Graham Elliot’s namesake restaurant on February 1. He most recently partnered with Phillip Foss at El and before that worked at Kith & Kin, Pops for Champagne, and Alinea.

Dish: Was El always a temporary gig for you?
Andrew Brochu: Yes. After Kith & Kin, [Foss] called me. It was kind of an open-door policy. I was definitely going to do something else eventually.

D: Did you know Graham Elliot was looking for a chef?
AB: I did not. Graham and Merlin [Verrier, Graham Elliot’s corporate chef/director of operations] approached me just before Christmas. We had a meeting, and they asked if I was interested in the position. It’s a pretty large step in my career, so of course I was interested.

D: Elliot’s fine-dining style is very distinctive, using packaged products and molecular techniques, for example. To what extent will you be adopting this style for the food at Graham Elliot?
AB: In the past, with my own cuisine, I have incorporated playfulness in my own way. I think you will see some of that playfulness, but not riffing on Elliot’s style—creating my own.

D: How serious or how fun do you expect the restaurant to be under you?
AB: It’s definitely going to be very serious cuisine. There is a playfulness, but the food is serious, as far as the technique goes. As of right now, they do have an à la carte menu in place and three tasting menus. We will be moving into a tasting-menu-only format.

D: Did you have to cook for them as an audition?
AB: I did not. I was shocked. I know how it works, but Graham let me know he was a fan of my food at Kith & Kin and at Pops, so he knew what I could do.

D: They said that you were their first and only choice. What distinguished you from other chefs for them?
AB: Basically they said I was the first person who came to mind, and I was the first person they talked to. If I said no, they would, of course, look elsewhere. It’s an extremely big honor for me. I will tell you part of the honor. Before I moved to Chicago, my dad flew up, and I had an interview with the guys from Alinea, and I asked them where we should go eat. They suggested [that if we wanted] something high-end, Avenues [under Graham Elliot] was the place to go at that moment in Chicago. That was my first meal in Chicago with my dad before I moved here, and now I’m asked by that guy to run his flagship. A nice little personal touch for me.

 

Quotable

“A jazz musician can improvise based on his knowledge of music. He understands how things go together. For a chef, once you have that basis, that’s when cuisine is truly exciting.” —Charlie Trotter (1959–), Chicago chef and restaurateur

 

Meat and Greet

Chris Kuziemko, a Publican chef since day one, laid out the plan of Publican Quality Meats (825 W. Fulton Market; no phone yet), with amplification:

Ground level
• Butcher shop. Three big cases with “chops and chickens and such,” Kuziemko says. The butchers at the counter take all the orders.
• Deli and retail store. Cheese, charcuterie, and other Publican menu items will be on sale.
• Thirty communal seats. The menu includes sandwiches, salads, soups, and what Kuziemko calls a “butcher meal.” “[The butcher meal is made from] underutilized cuts, stuff that people might not be that familiar with but that butchers might take home, like the hanger from the beef,” Kuziemko says. “What we are going to do is a Spanish dish called cocido. It’s a mix of blood sausage and boiled beef from the shin, so it has a lot of flavor and is unctuous but is not always very tender. We have these beautiful Spanish crocks to serve it in. It’s a big stew of chickpeas, potatoes, cabbage, and then you have the meat and a sauce [called] mojo picón, [which] originated in the Canary Islands.”

Basement
• Prep area. For sandwiches and soups.
• A baker, Ehsan Ganji. “He’s going to be baking stuff not only for retail and sandwiches but also for [sister restaurants] Publican, Avec, and Blackbird,” Kuziemko says.
• Butchering area. “The butchers have a band saw, a giant meat grinder, and a prep table that has a refrigerated top and keeps everything really cold,” he says.
• Restrooms. “On the way to the bathroom, there are windows into the walk-in cooler, where we have our rail system for hanging quarter steers and whole hogs,” he says.

 

Hitting the Bottle

Bottleneck Management, the company that owns the Loop’s Sweetwater and South Branch, Wicker Park’s The Boundary, and Lake View’s Trace, has been making as many announcements lately as a stopped el train. First, Paul Katz (McCormick & Schmick’s, Harry Caray’s) was hired as Bottleneck’s new corporate executive chef. Then, in 2013, an as-yet-unnamed restaurant will open in the first-floor Tribune Tower space currently occupied by WGN Radio. And last, the 200-seat Old Town Pour House (1419 N. Wells St.; no phone yet), planned for March, will open in the old 33 Club space. “I’m trying to do a little more creative, refined, and approachable food,” Katz says. For example: “There will probably be a burger on Old Town Pour House’s menu, but it will definitely be a lot more upscale than your everyday burger.” Although he hasn’t finalized the menu, Katz cites his changes to the Sweetwater burger as an analogy, swapping in Niman Ranch beef and a pretzel bun. That’s a lot of news to get out there—you might say it all bottlenecked.

 

What Are You, Chicken?

Zero-carb pizza crust—although it sounds impossible—really exists at the two-week-old Eshticken Pizza (4660 Hoffman Blvd., Hoffman Estates; 847-747-0000), a 50-seat fast-casual spot in the northwest suburbs. How crust can have no carbs is something of a secret, which we will keep about as tightly under wraps as the owners do. “The pizza crust is made out of [redacted], but we don’t like to tell our customers because it affects the way people taste the crust,” says Eman Aly, part owner. “But after they’ve tried it, we tell them.” Aly’s husband, the pugilistically named Mohamed Aly (who was an actor in Egypt before coming to the United States), spent two years developing the crust and now has applied for a patent on the technique. Traditional-crust pizza also appears on the menu, as do some of Mohamed’s family recipes, such as lentil soup, sausage, roast turkey, and rice pudding. As for the strange-looking name of the restaurant, Eman says coyly, “You might get [the meaning] from our menu. You might not. It has a lot to do with our zero-carb crust.” The name hasn’t been universally loved. “We put the E in front because we didn’t want it to be associated with shtick,” Eman says. “One of the malls we looked at did not allow us to rent space there because they didn’t like the name.” Still, the Alys kept the name, even with its allusion to the crust’s secret ingredient. We can’t figure out why they’re so cagey about it. They could always reassure people that it tastes like alligator or frogs’ legs.

 

Tough Nut, Soft Serve

Last spring, Brendan Sodikoff (Gilt Bar, the upcoming Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, Au Cheval) announced that Doughnut Vault (401 1/2 N. Franklin St.; no phone), the there’s-always-a-line doughnut window attached to Gilt Bar, would offer soft-serve ice cream in the summer. Here’s what happened, in Sodikoff’s own (edited, condensed) words:

“I was waiting for the Doughnut Vault to slow down. I thought we would be busy in the beginning, and then it would slow down, and we would have only one rack of doughnuts and have room for the machine. If anything, we’re busier now than when I decided we were going to do that. Assuming we slow down someday, I will put in the soft-serve machine, but if not, I will put it in the back of Bavette’s, where we are going to have a burger window. It’s totally ridiculous. There is an enormous soft-serve machine that has become a shelf. It’s taking up a lot of space in Gilt Bar’s downstairs prep kitchen. I would love to put it somewhere.”

 

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Things to Do

1. Eat high on the hog at The Southern (1840 W. North Ave.; 773-342-1840), where $12 scores entry to an all-you-can-eat pig roast, complete with rib-sticking sides. The swine fest starts Saturday at 3 p.m. and runs until it’s cleaned out. $3 Tecate cans and shots of Heaven Hill bourbon sweeten the deal.   

2. Stop by Vivo (838 W. Randolph St.; 312-733-3379) for lunch or dinner between now and March 31 for a $20 three-course meal. Vicente Duran’s winter-inflected menu includes dishes such as jumbo sea scallops with horseradish-infused mashed potatoes and gnocchi with Parmesan cream–black truffle sauce. A portion of the proceeds benefits Children’s Memorial Hospital.  

3. Conserve your coffee fund, thanks to Panera Bread, where they’ll hand out free java at all Chicago-area cafés on February 1 from 7 to 9 a.m. The event kicks off the month-long Warm Up Wednesday campaign, in which Panera delivers gratis coffee and warm treats at locations suggested on its Facebook page.

 

Dot Dot Dot . . .

A flurry of openings this week includes Barcito, the pintxos lounge within also-open Tavernita; Pasteur, the just-relaunched Vietnamese favorite in Edgewater; Urban Union, the small-plate Little Italy joint opening today; and Baker & Nosh, the artisanal bread shop aiming to start baking Friday. . . . Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen, the retooled version of Cyrano’s Bistrot & Wine Bar, opens for business February 1; and Klay Oven Kitchen, the third location (this one inside the Chicago French Market) for the Indian eatery, also debuts February 1. . . . On the flip side, we bid farewell the Wilmette French bistro Bluette (on the heels of its Lincoln Park sibling, Sweets & Savories, which shuttered in September) and the Bucktown burger spot J. Wellington’s. . . . Cornerstone Restaurant Group and Michael Jordan announced that they’ve joined forces with Bill Kim (Urbanbelly, Belly Shack) to develop Belly Q, an Asian barbecue concept poised to open in the former One Sixtyblue space come spring. . . . Curtis Duffy released the address for Grace (drumroll, please): 652 West Randolph Street. The former Avenues chef’s first foray into entrepreneurship is on deck for a midyear opening. . . . An Andersonville branch of Jerry’s Sandwiches (5914 N. Clark St.; no phone yet) is slated to open in May. Food offerings will be similar to those at the Wicker Park location, and there will be around 50 craft brews on tap to accompany those sizable sandwiches. . . . Congratulations to five Chicago restaurants—Alinea, Arun’s, Charlie Trotter’s, Everest, and Tru—for earning the coveted Five Diamond Award from the AAA. . . . Interestingly, four of those restaurants (all but Arun’s) ranked in the top ten of the data aggregator/recommender Bundle’s list of the 25 most expensive restaurants in the United States, ranked by average check per diner. Les Nomades is number 8, and Moto is number 15. Five entries in the top ten won Chicago the dubious distinction of having the most superexpensive restaurants in the country.

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