After giving a ridiculously courteous three-and-a-half-months notice, Matthias Merges left his post as director of everything Trotter-related on October 5th (officially speaking, he was director of operations and executive chef at Charlie Trotter’s). Now Merges is focusing on his own project—currently nameless and without a home, but planned for a summer 2011 launch—that will celebrate Americana and folk art at the table and beyond.
Dish: When did you land at Trotter’s?
Matthias Merges: I worked with Charlie—the first time, in 1989—for two years, then left. In 1996, he asked me to come back and run his kitchen, which I did. I opened up his new properties, had a hand in the cookbooks and TV shows, and became director of operations. Front, back, administrative—the whole nine yards.
D: Why part ways now?
MM: I gave a lengthy notice, and it was amiable. My wife [Rachel Crowl] was the architect for [the restaurant Metropolitan] in Salt Lake City. We decided that it was time for us to collaborate in Chicago.
D: What’s the plan?
MM: We’re going to open a restaurant in Chicago based on why America is so great. [It’s going to be about] the ingenuity and craft of Americans, a celebration of craft in cuisine, in wine and beer, in art, in flower arranging. It’s taking a holistic look at every part of a restaurant and how folk art and craft can affect it.
D: How did you come up with this concept?
MM: When we went through the nineties and the boom era, people were looking toward the outside. Now we feel there is a need in America to focus on America and why it’s so great.
D: Do you have a building in mind?
MM: We’re looking in unexpected areas of Chicago. We’re going to celebrate the turn-of-the-century industrial architecture that made Chicago so famous.
D: We all hate labels, but how would you describe the cuisine you’re after?
MM: It will be American cuisine. We want to pull from the different areas of America—the ethnicities and the flavors—and be inspired by what it means to be a melting pot.
Seems like two seconds ago that Scott Harris (Mia Francesca et al.) told us he was retooling and reopening the Little Italy stalwart Gennaro’s (626 S. Racine Ave.; no phone yet) in his short-lived Aldino’s space. Now that Harris nailed a November opening for that oldie but goodie, he’s had his next brainstorm—The Ballroom, coming this spring, to 1352 West Taylor Street (where the original Gennaro’s was). Scott Harris doing a fancy nightclub? No way. “All meatballs,” says Harris. “Five to seven different kinds—pork, veal, vegetable, chicken, turkey, maybe a fish meatball. Smashed meatballs, five or so kinds of sliders. Five different sauces. Wine and beer. Big communal table. Just fun.” Now that sounds like Scott Harris.
“Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear.” —Lemony Snicket [a.k.a. Daniel Handler (b. 1970), American author]
Mussels from Brussels
Every time we try to eat at Hopleaf, it feels like we’re battling half of the North Side for a table. So we’re thrilled about Leopold (1450 W. Chicago Ave.; no phone yet), a 90-seat spot in West Town that may out-Belgium Hopleaf and is slated to open in late November. “We took a trip to Belgium to immerse ourselves in the culture and see firsthand how the people eat over there,” says Christy Agee (Witts Tavern), a partner at Leopold. Which means mussels, poutine merguez, smoked rabbit loin with mustard spätzle, and steak Americain from the chef, Jeffrey Hedin, a veteran of Spring and Green Zebra. Oh, and beer, both Belgian and American crafts, done Belgian-style. First we get a Dutch restaurant named Vincent; now a Belgian named Leopold. By our calculations, a Danish place called Hans will be next.
When the Umpawa family launched Mon Thai Cuisine (5701 N. Clark St.; 773-275-3555) in August, the BYO sported an extensive menu of traditional Thai classics. Early customers, mostly neighborhood folk, clamored for the mango chicken and the avocado rolls, but the printed word, it seems, is hardly the be all and end all at Mon Thai. “We’re working on a secret menu—that’s what they call it on the street—in addition to what we have [on the regular menu], for those adventurous enough to try the food that we grew up with,” says Ed Umpawa. This menu will include items from the Isan region in northeastern Thailand, like a salad of shredded bamboo, loaded up with veggies and doused in an extra-spicy sauce unique to the region.
Napoli native Massimo Di Vuolo will finally have a home of his own. While studying psychology, he bounced between the Old and New Worlds before finally settling in Chicago. He ditched school and concentrated on food—first at Bice, then at Gioco, then back at Bice after a one-year stint in consulting. Now Di Vuolo is set to open Due Lire (4520 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-275-7878) on November 2nd, with Kevin Abshire, another Bice alum, in the kitchen. Expect a small menu with no more than 20 traditional Italian dishes—including grilled sandwiches with ham, stracchino cheese, and mushrooms, and house-made pasta stuffed with Swiss chard, ricotta, and ground-up roasted chestnuts, topped with a butter-sage sauce. “I love to entertain people, I love to have people in my house,” says Di Vuolo. “This place will have that kind of cozy, warm feeling like going to someone’s house in Italy.”
• NYC food crawl recap, part deux: a to-die-for duck breast; sturgeon that smokes the competition
• Penny hates on horchata
• An industry meet-and-eat on sustainable meat
Follow Penny on Twitter. (Follow Jeff Ruby on Twitter, too.)
Things To Do
1. Grab free groceries (while supplies last) from Target on October 21st and 22nd at the plaza adjacent to Tribune Tower (435 N. Michigan). Giada De Laurentiis makes an appearance from noon to 2 p.m. on the 22nd to give a cooking demonstration and to sign and give away 500 free copies of her cookbook Giada at Home.
2. Order the three-course Open Branch menu any Thursday at Branch 27 (1371 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-850-2700), and a portion of the bill helps support Open Books, a nonprofit that promotes literacy in Chicago.
3. Peruse the spread of locally made small-batch pastries and other confections at Logan Square Kitchen’s Halloween Pastry Market (2333 N. Milwaukee Ave.; 773-342-2333) on October 30th and 31st from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Chicagoan Greg Elliott, whose resumé includes stints at Naha, One Sixtyblue, and Ambria, is the new chef at Lockwood (Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe St.; 312-917-3404). His new menu—which will cover Lockwood, Potter’s Lounge and room service for Palmer House—will launch in December. . . . Toyoji Hemmi gives fans of Tsuki (a favorite in Lincoln Park for Japanese cooking; closed in September, mourned ever since) a reason to cheer this Thursday when he introduces an izakaya menu to the lounge at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge (358 W. Ontario St., 312-335-9888), a sister establishment. Five of Tsuki’s entrées already have made their Ai debut, with more to come through November. . . . On October 22nd, Tony Hu (the guy behind Lao Shanghai, Lao Beijing, and Lao Sze Chuan) opens Lao You Ju (2002 S. Wentworth Ave.; 312-225-7818), a Chinese “tapas” restaurant. Small plates of Chinese food? There’s something familiar about this concept. . . . Fusion food, defined: The sushi-rolling Mexican chef Juan Perez blends Japanese cuisine with Latin flair on the seasonal menu at Nabuki (18 E. First St., Hinsdale; 630-654-8880), which opened Monday. . . . Uncommon Ground welcomes two new chefs de cuisine with resumés that scream local-seasonal-sustainable: Daniel Jacobs, who comes from Bistro Campagne, in Edgewater (1401 W. Devon Ave.; 773-465-9801) and the former sous-chef Justin Martin in Wrigleyville (3800 N. Clark St.; 773-929-3680).
Dish takes a break next Wednesday, October 27th, but returns on November 3rd.