Govind Armstrong has set his sights on Chicago. “ Govind who,” you say? Armstrong is the man behind red-hot Table 8 in Los Angeles and Miami, and he is breaking ground at an undisclosed location in River North by the end of January. “I’ve always wanted to do a place in Chicago,” says Armstrong, 38. “It’s got an impeccable dining scene.” Armstrong, an L.A. native who apprenticed at the age of 13 with Wolfgang Puck at Spago, has Costa Rican roots, but describes Table 8 on Melrose Avenue as: “Nothing fancy; warm and inviting, a little gem that you would walk into. It’s not exactly comfort food, but it’s approachable. We’re not reinventing how people should eat, or what they should eat.” (The only dish he’s bringing to his 120-seat restaurant in Chicago that he’d reveal to us was a prime salt-roasted porterhouse.) Armstrong is currently searching for a Chicago chef who is “well-established and organized” to run his kitchen. Bunny Management
Brioso (4603 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-989-9000), the Mexican restaurant in Lincoln Square from the folks who brought you Erba (4520 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-989-4200), is transforming into Jack Rabbit, a Southwestern-themed spot. “We’re focusing on the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas,” says Alan Pirhofer, the exec chef. “It’s not going to be Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex tends to be really spicy.” Pirhofer’s dream menu includes duck fajitas and a dried-chili-and-Parmesan-crusted rib eye with a bourbon sauce. “And we’re going to do fun things with pork, like pigs in a blanket wrapped three different ways—one with bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin or a cornmeal-wrapped cutlet.” Expect a quickie face-lift within a month, a fresh coat of paint, and boom! It’s a new restaurant.
“Never work before breakfast. If you have to work before breakfast, eat your breakfast first.” –Josh Billings (1818-85), American humorist
We sent our trusty intern, Sarah Desprat, to the South Loop to get a sneak peek of Mercat (638 S. Michigan Ave.), the promising-but-still-in-construction tapas explosion from executive chef Jose Garces (Amada and Tinto in Philadelphia) and Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group. After a 13-year absence, Garces, a Northwest Side native, has returned to Chicago to open Mercat. Desprat’s take:
A month and a half is too long. I need tapas now. “I’m going to show people what tapas should be,” Garces told me; then he lamented that too much of what we eat is prepared in a way that is “uncared for.” That’s a pretty hefty claim—not to mention an obvious shot across the bow of the Ibericos and Ba-Ba-Reebas out there—but I won’t deny the Catalán-inspired menu had me at hello. Garces and his chef de cuisine from Philly, Michael Fiorello, spent three months designing it, tinkering with Spanish staples such as pulpo con patatas and cocas (flatbreads). The place definitely has a modern vibe: hexagons everywhere, a riot of colors and textures. And while I generally do not condone voyeurism, Mercat is aiming to make the open kitchen hip again with its massive metallic workspace on display for all. When the place opens in early March, faithful Dish subscribers will see me there.
Jerry Kleiner on his Hyde Park Restaurant . . . Again
“If all goes well, it’ll open the first week in March. But we still don’t have a name. I’m getting the community involved, and everybody’s got names. I’ve heard thousands. They are so all over the place. One guy says Black Cat; another guy says you can’t do black. Other suggestions are too white-sounding. What’s wrong with the name Hyde Park Grill? It’s in London; it’s in New York. It’s not hip enough for them. If someone comes up with an incredible name—something that feeds the needs of a diverse community—I’ll buy them an incredible meal with Champagne at Room 21.” (Send suggestions to email@example.com, and we will forward them to Kleiner.)
Con Sabor Cubano (2739 W. Lawrence Ave.; 773-728-2226), a family-run Cuban sandwich specialist, opened in Albany Park on January 15th. Says Reynaldo Perez Jr., a former bartender in Miami and the son of the owner, Reynaldo Perez: “The only things right now are sandwiches. Cuban sandwiches. Steak sandwiches. Roasted pork sandwiches. Pollo habanero. Ropa vieja sandwiches.” By next month, Perez says the tiny spot’s menu will include croquetas, papa rellena, and homemade pastries like arroz con leche and bread pudding. But for now: sandwiches. And, for some reason, Yoo Hoo.
“There was an intense burned-wood taste, as if the vegetables had been smoked over a really bad fire—like a house fire, almost. We asked our server if they’d been grilled over a wood fire—he said he didn’t know, had never looked. Considering it’s an open kitchen, how hard would it have been to find out?” –An excerpt from one of our reviewers’ notes on the grilled salad at Violet (3819 N. Southport Ave.; 773-327-0234)
The Busiest Oven in Barrington
Ten thousand. That’s how many cookies Jennie and Vera’s Cookies baked out of Jennie Näss’s Barrington kitchen for the recent holidays. And Näss and her mother, Vera Mirkovic, did it in a month. “It was quite the assembly line,” Näss says. “My husband did the occasional taste testing. Even my dad got involved, putting the shipping boxes together and the labels on.” The two-month-old online business ships handmade gourmet cookies all over; Vera’s Walnut Cookie, made with high-quality walnut liqueur sent by their family in Croatia, is the big seller. Anyone in the family sick of cookies? “My husband, Dan, is an ice-cream lover,” says Näss. “So on Friday night we have ice cream for dessert instead of cookies.”
Things to Do
- Sample Riojas at Sam’s Wine & Spirits on January 18th (at 1720 N. Marcey St.), January 19th (at 2010 Butterfield Rd. in Downers Grove), or January 22nd (at 50 E. Roosevelt Rd.), and enter a drawing for a trip to New York for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week—plus a designer dress from Project Runway’s Steven Rosengard, who will be on hand in the South Loop tasting/drawing on the 22nd.
- Read about the South African banana split that has men “[leaving] the restaurant bouncing like Bambi.”
- Listen to Ruby’s shameless musical ode to suburbia.
Dot Dot Dot . . .
La Fette (163 W. North Ave.), a three-year-old French spot in Old Town, has closed. . . . So has Kyoto (2534 N. Lincoln Ave.), after 15 years of proffering sushi in Lincoln Park. . . . La Española (6543 W. Cermak Rd., Berwyn; 708-788-7400), a west suburban tapas bar in the former Sevilla space, has opened. . . . Coming soon: Crisp (2940 N. Broadway; 877-693-8653), a Korean fast-food spot in Lake View.