In his eighteen years as a chef-restaurateur, and with seven restaurants and a cocktail bar currently run by his One Off Hospitality Group, Paul Kahan has built a local empire by anticipating and gratifying Chicago’s evolving tastes. His exposure to culinary entrepreneurialism came early: His father owned a deli and also a salmon smokehouse factory in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, where Kahan (pronounced "con") worked before and after college. His formative restaurant gigs were with chefs who also ran their own operations; he was first a line cook and then sous chef for Rick Bayless at Topolobampo when it opened in 1989. In 1997 Kahan met Donnie Madia, a career front-of-house maestro who was planning his own venture. Kahan signed on as chef, with the agreement that he’d also be a partner.
Their collaboration became Blackbird, which opened a year later in the same transitioning neighborhood where Kahan once pulled kipper from racks in his dad’s fish plant. The snugly spaced tables at Blackbird recalled a delicatessen’s communal chumminess, but every other aspect of the restaurant skewed upscale: the space-age interior, all whites and geometric angles; Kahan’s love of pure, forthright flavors and gutsy meats. Five years later, the restaurant’s gonzo success begat Avec, an instantly mobbed wine bar serving ambitious small plates in a slim space next door to Blackbird. Kahan and Madia eventually joined forces with sommelier Eduard Seitan and cocktail guru Terry Alexander (the mind behind award-winning speakeasy The Violet Hour) to form One Off Hospitality.
The quartet maintains a sweet spot rare for restaurant groups: Their concepts, whether they lean fine dining or casual, hit big with diners, but they never spiral into kitsch or ubiquity. That triumph stood out to me when I recently visited each of One Off’s establishments. Kahan is named as executive chef at all of the restaurants, but one gets the sense that his chefs de cuisine exercise a fair amount of autonomy. Every place exudes a sense of individuality.
I’ve ranked them in order of my impressions. Spoiler: No place bombs out. But it’s clear some are operating at the height of their creativity and some could use a refresher. And the company’s moneymaking blockbuster, it turns out, simply didn’t appeal to my tastes.
"What is Midwestern cuisine?" is a question that’s been percolating in the food media for the last couple of years, as pundits seek to uplift the region’s diversity — and perhaps spark the next major national food trend. The heartland’s vastness defies an all-purpose classification, but Publican is one affirming interpretation. When its doors unlocked in 2008, the restaurant synthesized two of Kahan’s obsessions (pork and beer) and drew the hordes into a long beer hall of a space. It turns uproarious every night, but somehow the crowds don’t feel crushing.
Publican is casual and close but joyfully immersive in its food and drink experience.
Publican remains the apex of One Off Hospitality’s feats: casual and close (sitting at one of the banquet-style tables, you’ll likely bump elbows with a stranger at least once during the meal) but joyfully immersive in its food and drink experience. Our wry server didn’t hold back when we asked her to help us narrow options from among the 60 available beers; we scored with a pleasantly bracing saison from Brasserie BFM and a honey-kissed strong Belgian ale from De Dolle Brouwers.
Kahan and chef de cuisine Cosmo Goss have kept the menu of-the-moment relevant. I gobbled the signature pork rinds, at once crackly and gossamer, savored the feral nuttiness of Serrano ham from Spain, and marveled at the pleasingly chewy texture of beef heart tartare. In a nod to current tastes, though, the seafood and especially the vegetables dishes kept equal pace. Creations like spot prawns vivid against ramps, hazelnuts, and citrus or charred cucumbers contrasted by lush burrata, walnuts, and the Yemeni hot sauce called zhoug showed a kitchen engaged on every level of the food chain. A hot, light waffle served with butter and jam for dessert came off as the sweet intersection Europe and the Midwest, an ideal and appropriate finale.
2) NICO OSTERIA
"You have to try the Brussels sprouts sandwich," said the Chicago friend dining with me. I groaned. It’s springtime; I was craving asparagus or English peas. Then I gave in and soon understood: This wintry concoction is also a genius construct, more in the trendy toast category than a true sandwich. The sprouts fry to fluttery crispness before being heaped atop grilled toast with milky stracciatella cheese and hazelnuts. Drizzles of olive oil and lemon honey bind the flavors. Each bite includes crunch and gush.
Erling Wu-Bower, Nico Osteria’s chef de cuisine, composes many such dishes that quietly thrill with their texture and balance. He reboots the combination of orecchiette and broccoli rabe by subbing hunks of the traditional pork sausage with a lighter version made with big-eye tuna. His crudos shimmer with acidity. He solves the riddle of swordfish, so often served dry and mealy, by wrapping thin slices involtini-style around a farro stuffing and grilling the whole affair.
Wu-Bower worked for Kahan in several of his restaurants before proving himself at Nico’s stoves. The execution he and his team pull off especially impresses given the restaurant’s location in the Gold Coast district’s Thompson Hotel: The menu aims to please a wide audience (there are burgers for those who wish to reject the Italian seafood theme), but the kitchen’s finesse warrants the deserved attention it has received. The splendor carries right through to the astounding gelatos for dessert. Pastry chef Amanda Rockman is about to leave the restaurant. Let’s hope she leaves behind her recipe for burnt vanilla gelato: It tastes like licking the inside of a split vanilla bean, and I mean that as the highest praise.
3) DOVE’S LUNCHEONETTE
One Off Hospitality’s newest project, opened last September, is an Americana dream where the past and the future intersect. The setting: a wholly engineered midcentury diner with the requisite round metal stools, wood paneling, and mottling of tiny brown and white tiles that recall school cafeterias of yore. The food: "Southern-inspired Mexican cuisine," which translates to cooking that isn’t quite Tex-Mex but touches on the two cultures articulately.
I’ve never encountered a subtler rendition of chiles rellenos, even during my years in Texas. They look sturdy enough, these Anaheim peppers that are spackled in batter, resting in a moat of thick tomato-serrano broth, and decorated with petals of shaved chayote squash. But they ooze downy farmer’s cheese reminiscent of ricotta, and the pepper’s thinness makes each bite remarkably light. Comparisons to fried squash blossoms are inevitable. I can’t conceive of a similar miracle with chicken-fried chicken; easing its heaviness all but strips the dish of its essence. But Dove’s serves a relatively restrained version with sheer breading and a healthy smothering of peas and pearl onions to (somewhat) offset the blanket of chorizo gravy.
The flagrant employment of chiles and the nervy combinations (collards fill tamales; muenster adds its distinctive funk to a ham, cheese, and egg torta) may jostle the brain, but ultimately the speedy service and the nap-inducing comforts do fulfill the usefulness of a neighborhood diner, albeit one geared toward the flocking hipsters of Wicker Park.
Avec does not accept reservations; every evening it begins dinner service at 3:30 p.m. and starts filling to capacity moments later. In the several times I’ve been to the restaurant over the last decade I’ve never seen it been less than bombarded. My buddy and I arrived at 5:02 on a recent Saturday and snagged the last two available bar seats. We watched an eager crowd materialize outside the door shortly thereafter.
The kitchen prowess at Avec warrants a full meal, not just a snack
No wonder. Avec’s game has not faltered. Sitting in the rectangular room lined with light, grainy wood draws comparisons to eating in a sauna or inside a giant cigar box, but filled with people the space is electric and packed enough not to encourage lingering for too long. The menu bounces like a pinball around the Mediterranean, ricocheting off the flavors of Spain, Italy, and Greece, and occasionally a few points at the edge of the Middle East. Dates stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon, the one dish that will never disappear from the list of small plates, still dazzlingly sate the universal craving for sweet and smoky. Clever shareables like smoked whitefish and taramasalata (fish roe dip) over grilled bread, or a riff on Lebanese kibbeh in sausage form alongside feta and a handful of pine nuts, make the lips smack specifically for wine — perhaps a sparkling rose, or an obscure Italian red that the server pours with a sage "trust me" expression on his face.
Larger plates like a silken roasted pork shoulder with vadouvan-spiced lentils and apples reminded me that the kitchen prowess at Avec warrants a full meal, not just a snack. It might seem like an entirely reasonable idea to skip dessert and scoot along with the evening, except that a warm strawberry-rhubarb crumble with blood orange frozen yogurt proved one of the most memorable desserts on my recent trip. Plan to stick around a few minutes longer.
5) PUBLICAN QUALITY MEATS
Publican’s little brother butcher-bakery operation, housed across the street from the older sibling, updates the family deli of Kahan’s childhood. Meats in every permutation of fresh, cured, and smoked model in the front-and-center glass cases, surrounded by breads of all shapes, stacks of cookies, and a nearby cooler full of beer and esoteric sodas like McFuddy Pepper Elixer.
Since PQM opened three years ago, the sandwich menu has grown more diverse and sophisticated. Vegetarians receive love in a number called "The Perks of Being a Cauliflower." Choose it over the Persian chopped salad, whose many disparate ingredients, most cut to the size of crudité, never quite coalesce. On a day that calls for warming sustenance, start with ribollita, the Tuscan stew of beans and kale here simmered with cotechino, a boiled salami.
PQM attracts teeming lunch crowds daily, but Saturday around noon may be the time of the week to visit. That’s when the kitchen rolls out a massive porchetta to display on butcher block, the twine marks still visible on the crackly skin and the wafts of garlic tempting you to order it sliced onto ciabatta with pickles and some heady mustard.
6) THE VIOLET HOUR
The first round of cocktails looked like our group of four had color-coordinated our order: We sipped drinks in hues of bubblegum and cherry and cinnamon red-hots. Their hues belied their potency. Strawberry syrup in a concoction called The Rabbit Hole, for example, offset two variations on bitter fernet, including one produced by Chicago distiller Letherbee. Assisted by our poised server and her precise suggestions, we drank remarkably well at The Violet Hour. Little surprise that it took home the Beard award for Outstanding Bar Program this year.
It’s time to rethink the atmosphere, though. It follows the nouvelle speakeasy model that rippled through the country last decade: Wait outside (the line grows dauntingly long on weekend nights), maybe linger again in an antechamber, and then settle into a twilight room adorned with trippy throne-chairs and billowy curtains and glam chandeliers. In 2015 the post-Prohibition motif feels precious and outdated.
I spied the toasted pierogi served in kielbasa broth on the menu and thought: yes. Loved the pride-of-place wink, the acknowledgement of Chicago’s thriving, longstanding Polish culture. The dish arrived; the pierogi came buried in frizzled Brussels sprouts with mushrooms, grated farmer’s cheese, and preserved egg tangled in the leaves. The whole thing needed a top note that the kielbasa broth didn’t quite provide. It felt muddled, the essence buried.
This is how my last two meals at Blackbird have struck me: imposing in technique but fiddly. In Kahan’s food, I’ve always admired how the straightforward flavors make a direct connection to the palate and mind. I glance through the recent menu and see so many whole-hearted allusions to the city’s immigrant communities and Kahan’s background and predilections: pumpernickel among the adornments on char crudo, sauerkraut sidling up to guinea hen, tomatillo adding a Mexican melisma to suckling goat, the Eastern European one-two of cabbage and sour cream with grilled strip loin and veal cheeks. These culinary touchstones are only inspirational starting points, of course, but the kitchen’s signals nonetheless seem scrambled by too many ingredients. The char, for example, comes deluged by smoked roe, wisps of turnips and green grapes, and pearl onions that all distract from the innate pleasure of the fish.
Also: a word about the restaurant’s tea service. Among the dessert selections, I spied a pu-erh (tea leaves compressed into cakes and aged) from 1978. It cost $28 for a pot, but as a card-carrying tea geek I thought it worth the splurge. The staff had no idea how to brew it. Tea so old and precious should be steeped at least several times; the first round brief, less than a minute. When the pot arrived the tea had already been brewing for several minutes. It tasted like tannic dirt. I could go on about subsequent requests for more hot water that were ignored, but the point is this: Not only did the staff not know how to handle such an expensive tea, but they assumed that a customer willing to spend that much on a beverage didn’t know how the tea should be prepared, either. Which is insulting.
8) BIG STAR
I imagine I would dig Big Star on an idle Tuesday afternoon at 2:45 p.m., when I might secure a seat without much hassle, nurse a shot of Old Potrero rye or Del Maguey Pechuga mezcal, and down a couple of al pastor tacos.
But on any given night or weekend, Big Star is a mosh pit of humanity. The bodies press first to gain entrance (staffers check I.D. at the patio entrance, a reminder that this is as much bar as taqueria) and then to secure a drink at the four-deep bar, reaching through other limbs to hand cash to the bartenders.
On the first beautiful Saturday this year, I stood at the edge of the chaos feeling like I was at a One Direction concert, wondering why I was there. When the wait for a table looked to be over an hour and the bar proved nearly impenetrable, Chicago Eater editor Daniel Gerzina suggested we order tacos from the carryout window, which we ate in relative peace standing off to the side of the patio. I could appreciate the snap of the fresh corn tortillas and the humor in the Walking Taco, a riff on Frito pie served in the corn chip's red and gold aluminum pouch.
Big Star isn’t my scene. And it really doesn’t matter. This is One Off Hospitality’s mint, maybe the most critic-proof hangout in Chicago. People revere the place. Y’all enjoy. I’ll be next door at Dove’s, cocooned in a plate of chile rellenos.
Publican: 837 West Fulton Market, Chicago, (312) 733-9555, thepublicanrestaurant.com
Nico Osteria: 1015 North Rush Street, Chicago, (312) 994-7100, nicoosteria.com
Dove’s Luncheonette: 1545 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, (773) 645-4060, doveschicago.com
Avec: 615 West Randolph Street, Chicago, (312) 377-2002, avecrestaurant.com
Publican Quality Meats: 825 West Fulton Market, Chicago, (312) 445-8977, publicanqualitymeats.com
The Violet Hour: 1520 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, (773) 252-1500, theviolethour.com
Blackbird: 619 West Randolph Street, Chicago, (312) 715-0708, blackbirdrestaurant.com
Big Star: 1531 North Damen Avenue, Chicago, (773) 235-4039, bigstarchicago.com