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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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Four days later, when I meet Kahan and Madia to tour the raw space, I am reminded that, at this level, design elicits at least as much handwringing as the mussels broth. Where Kahan can talk endlessly about the fresh farm goat butter he plans to serve, Madia obsesses over the wallpaper that will hang behind the hostess stand. The New York architect Thomas Schlesser’s blueprints for the space call for a rectangle of long walnut tables and tall ladder-back chairs. Diners will sit communally under 84 vintage globes, all opaque white and suspended from the ceiling. And, though on my visit I saw nothing but studs for walls and a cement floor, Madia described their vision—wallpapered modernism melded with brass taps, antique steins, and some nods to the history of the 120-year-old building. The history is important to the chef. As we climb to the mezzanine to examine the dry storage, Kahan mentions that his great-grandfather, a Russian “jobber,” or wholesale food distributor, likely stocked his cart at this very building in the early 1900s.

The vision is impressive, but when the mention of costs comes up, an aura of mild panic creeps in. Project X has been in the works for two years now, and just when it’s time for it to launch, a whole crop of high-profile restaurants are slated to open. No one’s willing to talk dollars, but it’s clear that a lot of money is on the line, and despite having a James Beard-winning architect and a James Beard-winning chef on the payroll, the partners are doing a ton of heavy lifting—literally—themselves. Then there are the other unfinished details: two months out and still no name. Kahan isn’t crazy about the possibilities, which include New Monastery (too religious?); the Publican (too political?); and two French derivatives, Saison and Le Bon Fermier (too hard to pronounce?). “As much as we like to say we aren’t control freaks, we are,” admits Madia.

Back to the mussels: The latest batch is ready and everyone digs in and agrees that they’re delicious—except Kahan, who gives the effort a C-plus. He’s similarly underwhelmed by some country ribs that, about an hour later, come off the grill tasting too sweet. Not to worry. Plenty of menu items have already been perfected, including deboned sardines topped with a green garlic salsa verde and grilled asparagus under a soft-poached duck egg. As Huston plates the tender asparagus stalks to the tune of Mavis Staples on the stereo, the chef slips back to his refrigerator and pulls out a bottle of Trappist Rochefort. He describes how the dark ale is brewed at a small Belgian monastery, and how his new venture is really about his love of beer, and I see for the first time what Paul Kahan looks like when he’s satisfied.

Photography: (Players, from left) Jessica Tampas Photography, Anthony Tahlier, Michael Stryder Photography  (Brasserie) Bertrand Rieger/Getty Images; (Mussels) © Ryan Fox,  (oyster) © Giuseppe Lancia, (pig) © Maria Jeffs, (map) © Isabelle Mory, (beer) © Ljupco Smokovski, all, istockphoto.com; (chair and plates) Megan Lovejoy

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