We knew the acclaimed chef Laurent Gras (Fifth Floor in San Francisco) was hooking up with Rich Melman and his Lettuce cronies, but we weren’t sure how or where. Now it’s clear: Gras is taking over the Ambria space (2300 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-472-5959). “Our goal all along has been to build the best seafood restaurant in all of Chicago,” says Melman, who also tried to make a deal (ultimately unsuccessful) in the new Trump building. Ambria’s last meal is June 30th, then renovations should begin in July. Melman says his guys are pushing for a November opening for the unnamed restaurant (the name Agnes has been bandied about), but don’t hold your breath. “I can’t see it before end of January,” he says. “I would bet a $100 to a dollar that November won’t happen. I know what it takes to make something this special happen.”
Melman says that a seafood/steak place is going into the former Papagus space in Oak Brook. “We’re talking about calling it the Reel Club but I don’t know if that’s going to stick,” he says. “We’ve got hundreds of names that we haven’t used over the years. We went into the fish file.” And his sons, R.J. and Jerrod Melman, are plotting their first venture, a “hip American restaurant” called Hub 51, for next February on the corner of Hubbard and Dearborn. Then he told us something about a burger joint (Stripburger) he’s opening in Vegas next week with “fat guys pole-dancing like Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live,” but he lost us there.
“Let a cabbage soup be entirely cabbage . . . and may what I say about soup be a law applied to everything that is eaten." –Nicholas de Bonnefons, 17th-century French gardener
for Rande Gerber, 45, whose Gold Coast establishment, Whiskey Bar & Grill (Sutton Place Hotel, 1015 N. Rush St.; 312-475-0300), reopens June 15th with an upscale Mexican theme
D: Why the change?
RG: We were doing fantastic. After teaming up with Richard Sandoval (Maya, Pompano), who is an incredible Mexican chef, we decided after eight years to do a renovation. It’s the right time to reinvent ourselves in Chicago. We just wanted to bring a great food aspect to that location, and Richard’s food is incredible.
D: What’s his best dish?
RG: His seviches are incredible. We did these tastings and I loved everything, but we would have a 15-page menu if we did everything.
D: Did you redesign the space?
RG: We still have the bar area and the same high energy. We’ll seat about 60 in the bar area, and about 40 outside as well. We closed the bar for just one week. Custom designed everything. Furniture was built in LA, then shipped out here. We did all of the construction in five days.
D: Wow. So how often will Sandoval be in Chicago?
RG: Richard will be there quite often. We’ve done this in Cancún, and we’re opening another in Scottsdale in five months. So Richard or one of his corporate chefs will be in Chicago for much of the first year.
D: What will the prices be like?
RG: For a Mexican restaurant, it will be high end. But you won’t notice the prices. Starters could be from $5 to $9 for the seviches. Steak tacos, $9; enchiladas from $15 to $19. Specialties will go anywhere from pork carnitas at $18, to rib eye at $22, to tampiqueños steak at $26.
D: Chicago is hot for Latino food right now.
RG: I didn’t know that. I just met Richard and knew that I had to do it.
Cut to the Chaise
Chaise Lounge (1840 W. North Ave.; 773-342-1840), Isaac Holzwarth’s “American eclectic” restaurant, opened last week in the former Iggy’s space. Holzwarth worked as exec chef of RL for nearly five years; now he’s expanding his acumen to include touches of French, Italian, German, Indian, and Pan-Asian. “I don’t stay true to any cuisine,” he says. “This is a Midwestern city and I have a tendency to Americanize food.” Excepting his hulking 16-to-20-ounce “volcano cut” short ribs ($27.75) and a petite filet ($30.25), menu items hover around $14 for (roughly) six-ounce portions. “Restaurant portions in general are too heavy,” Holzwarth explains. “If you can’t eat everything that’s served, that’s not a value.” Another value: It’s BYO for now.
He Said It
“The tables and the bar are made out of beautiful planks of wood from 200-to-300-year-old oak and ash trees. I found this guy in southern Indiana who likes to collect all this wood. People call him when they have to take down a tree. He slices it into three-inch strips and stacks it in his garage.” –Alan Shikami, co-owner of the new contemporary Asian spot, Shikago (190 S. LaSalle St.; 312-781-7300), opening June 18th
Our trusty intern Mindy visited Uber Burger (618½ Church St., Evanston, 847-866-5200). Her take: “It felt like being transported to the set of Austin Powers, and not in a good way.” The neon walls and hippie flower designs were a bit much for her, but Robert LaPata’s new spot (he also owns La Petite Amelia next door) managed to keep her interested with sauces like chipotle ketchup and whole-grain mustard aïoli. And the burgers were good, but made better by the $2 tab at the grand-opening special.
Things To Do
1. If you’re a police officer, firefighter, or EMT, take your badge to Hard Rock Cafe (63 W. Ontario St.; 312-953-2252) on June 14th and get a 10-ounce “legendary experience” burger for 71 cents. If you’re a groupie of police officers, firefighters, and/or EMTs, go to Hard Rock and ogle the public servant group of your choice.
2. Check out Caoba Mexican Bar & Grill (1619 N. Damen Ave.; 773-342-2622), Bucktown’s new spot focusing on parrilladas (mixed grills) in the old Pacific Café space. We haven’t tried it yet, but the offering of chipotle-rubbed baby back ribs, Spanish chorizo, and grilled steak ($30) sounds like heaven.
3. It’s got little or nothing to do with food, but while you’re online, click on Push, Ruby’s new anti-blog, or “slog,” in which he reveals every mortifying detail of his wife’s first pregnancy.
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Christine Kim, chef de cuisine of Green Zebra (1460 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-243-7100), will leave at the end of the summer. No replacement has been announced. . . . Contrary to rumors, Cuban all-star Cafe Bolero (2252 N. Western Ave.; 773-227-9000) is not closing for good. It will reopen next week under new management. . . . The Sun-Times reported this week on Charlie Trotter’s announcement of his latest venture in Las Vegas, this time in the form of the 100-seat Restaurant Charlie at the Venetian Hotel in November. (Last time he was ahead of the curve in 1995 at the MGM Grand.) . . . Remember this? Still funny. . . . The new chef of Fulton’s on the River (315 N. LaSalle St.; 312-822-0100), Levy veteran Rick DeLeon, started late last week. He promises to keep the menu as is.