Roka Akor (Chicago): Beverage director Adam Weber offers the skinny on shochu, Japan’s popular low-cal spirit

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Adam Weber showcases the popular Japanese spirit shochu at Chicago's Roka Akor , where he offers fruit and spice house-infused versions of the drink. Photo by Lara Kastner

Adam Weber wants to show you about shochu (pronounced “show-choo”).

Weber is the beverage director at Chicago’s fashionable new Japanese eatery, Roka Akor.  And he is anxious to introduce diners to shochu, a distilled spirit that is ubiquitous in Japan.  Not widely known in the States, shochu outsells sake in its homeland, and can even be purchased from street vending machines there.

“I want to create that word on the street,” says Weber, who is positioning Roka Akor to be the city’s “go-to place for shochu.”

Low in calories, shochu, which is produced from a variety of starches, is now more popular in Japan than sake.

With an alcohol content generally averaging about 25 percent, shochu “can be made and distilled from any number of different [starches] — buckwheat, barley, rice and even brown sugar,” Weber says.

The spirit “provides different taste profiles” depending on which starch is used to make it.  Koji, a mold that converts the starch to sugar, also contributes to its flavoring.

Depending on the shochu, the palate may read it as similar to vodka, gin or tequila — although it is lower than all of these in both proof and calories. (For example, a 2-ounce pour of shochu contains about 35 calories, while an equal amount of vodka contains 120.)  Brown sugar shochu can taste similar to rum.  And that’s part of the fun, Weber says.

Currently, Roka Akor offers seven varieties of shochu, and within the next few months, Weber hopes to double or even triple that number.

“There are so many different ones, and so many to choose from,” he says.

The Japanese consume shochu in a number of ways — neat, on the rocks, warmed, mixed with fruit juices, served in tea — and Weber also serves it in a variety of formats, both traditional and new.

Yes, you can get a straight pour of shochu on ice.  But Weber also infuses his spirits with fresh fruits and spices.  Presently he’s offering flavors such as blueberry, pineapple and mango-chile.  As the weather gets colder, he’ll add more seasonal options, including fig and spiced apple.  The infusions are served over ice that is freshly chipped from an ultra-pure and impressive 60-pound-block that the restaurant custom orders.

Weber is working on a new beverage menu that will incorporate additional shochu-based beverages. Photo by Lara Kastner

“I’m into ‘market-fresh mixology,’” says Weber, who has plans to add a number of shochu-based drinks to the restaurant’s soon-to-be revamped cocktail menu.  (Weber will focus on showcasing Asian-tinged versions of classic cocktails.  And he will be lowering prices as well, so I will not be listing current prices in this post.)

For now, he’s serving a fresh cherry and black peppercorn Manhattan, which he describes as “a spinoff on the classic Manhattan.”  Here, Weber mixes his house-infused cherry-peppercorn shochu with Punt e Mes vermouth, Angostura bitters and cherry syrup.  The cocktail, which is stirred over ice and served straight up, is finished with Luxardo Maraschino cherry liqueur.

Weber is also perfecting a traditional shochu tea service, where guests are presented with a serving of shochu and a pot of tea; the two beverages are then mixed together.

Says Weber:  “I really want to introduce the Japanese culture to the people at Roka Akor.”

Roka Akor
456 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

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Roka Akor (Chicago): Chef Ce Bian presents simple and fancy fare at a sushi-robata grill restaurant

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Chef Ce Bian pays exacting attention to the ingredients in his cuisine, down to the freshly grated wasabi he serves with his sushi. Photo by Lara Kastner

Roka Akor’s executive chef Ce Bian is a master when it comes to transforming the humble into the sublime.

Forget the obligatory toothpaste-like green dollop of wasabi paste on your sushi plate, for example.  Nope, Bian sends his staff around with a Japanese wasabi grater and a fresh chunk of wasabi root.  And wasabi isn’t the only ingredient that the chef frets and fusses over.

“I’m really picky about my materials.  I believe the ingredients are everything for this restaurant,” says Bian, who has quickly gained a following at this new high-end sushi and robata grill restaurant.  (The River North branch, an offshoot of a well-regarded Scottsdale, Ariz., eatery, has been a fiery-hot destination since it opened in July.)

Bian uses local ingredients when he can, but is willing to fly in fish from around the world to offer fine-quality sushi. Photo by Lara Kastner

Bian doesn’t hesitate to grill only prime- grade beef on his three-tiered charcoal-fueled robata or fly in the freshest fish from around the globe for his sashimi and nigiri, he says.  But he also sees the value of using simple ingredients and seasonings and straightforward preparations.  Sometimes a dash of salt and pepper before the prime rib eye hits the robata is as crazy as it gets.

“You want to taste the flavor of the steak or the sashimi or the fish,” Bian says.  “You want to take the flavors up but not overpower them.”

This isn’t meant to give the impression, however, that Bian is some kind culinary slacker in a chef’s jacket and bandanna.

After all, there’s the considerable menu to consider.  Unless you’re dining with a team of sumo wrestlers, it would be impossible to power through its offerings in one sitting.

The extensive menu offers a variety of sushi, starters, grilled entrées and sides. Photo by Lara Kastner

“It’s a really wild menu,” Bian says.  “There are a lot of different categories.  It goes wide.”

And indeed it does — in addition to both basic and challenging sushi, there are scads of hot and cold appetizers and tempura to choose from.

On the robata side, Bian offers a rainbow of veggie dishes in addition to traditional grilled meats and seafood.

Presentation also is essential to the Japanese dining experience, Bian says.  And he goes to great lengths to offer wildly artistic creations that combine both traditional Japanese presentation elements — daikon radish sculptures, edible flowers — along with his own creations.

“People not only eat the food, they also eat the plate,” he says.  Factoring in how a dish looks and smells, “you may even love it before you even taste it.”

Bian has a point.  There were a lot of love-at-first-sight moments as The Husband and I worked our way through Roka Akor’s menu with Henry, a hardcore foodaphile who had won a Fine dining experience at a fundraiser for Chicago’s Farther Foundation.

Presentation is important in Japanese culinary tradition, and Bian showcases his simple foods in artistic ways. Photo by Lara Kastner

Starting at the top of the menu, we selected super-fresh, clean and subtle bluefin tuna sashimi ($12) as our palate-cleansing opener.  We could have stayed in sushi-land all evening — the artfully decorated deluxe sashimi platters that continually passed by our tables were seductive masterpieces.  But instead, we decided to go as deeply into the menu as possible.

The Husband and I crave simply grilled and seasoned hot peppers — from Mexican jalapenos to Spanish pimientos — so we were happy to see robata-grilled shishito peppers ($7) on the appetizer list.  Here, Bian does an Asian twist on the flamers, dousing them with cooling soy ponzu and finishing them with smoky bonito flakes.

One can make a complete meal out of Roka Akor's sushi, but we suggest going deeper into the menu. Photo by Lara Kastner

Henry was a good sport, letting this total stranger dip her spoon into his lobster red miso soup ($8).  The rich and pleasantly briny broth was a nice break from standard-issue restaurant miso.

We finished our appetizer course with Roka Akor’s pleasantly plump signature wagyu beef and kimchi dumplings ($10) before heading over to the robata offerings.

After much discussion, Henry selected the yuzu miso-marinated black cod ($32) with pickled red onions. The firm and mild fish was accented with a gently sweet Asian citrus- and ginger-spiked sauce.  Props, once again, to Henry for graciously offering up samples without hesitation.

In return for Henry’s good deeds, I shared my three Korean-spiced grilled lamb cutlets ($32) with the guys.  Sauce was superfluous, as the slightly crispy chops packed enough garlic and heat on their own, and needed no additional help.

The Husband took an unexpected detour and happily ordered more sushi, including fresh cuts of yellowtail, salmon and an encore of bluefin.

If you have a few extra bucks in your pocket, go ahead and splurge on the shaved black truffles. Photo by Lara Kastner

But, like Henry and me, he was all over those robata vegetables, which Bian grills just long enough to caramelize their exteriors and give them a light “charcoal flavor.”  Tender sweet potatoes ($5) were simply dressed with ginger-spiked teriyaki and an ample dash of salt.  Lightly charred sweet corn ($5) could be greedily rolled in butter and soy.

We also accented our entrées with a robata-cooked Japanese wild mushroom rice hot pot ($11). Cleverly served in a cast-iron pot set atop a wood base, the stick-to-your ribs dish proved a solid side.  But our group concurred that it would have been “more interesting” had we coughed up the extra $14 to have it topped with shaved black truffles.

Forging ahead, but losing steam, we moved on to desserts and settled on two.  Smooth baked green tea custard was served with gooey robata-grilled caramelized bananas ($8).  Rustic spiced banana cake ($12) featured Bian’s house-made coconut sorbet and chocolate-ginger sauce.  But The Husband insisted we swap the sorbet for Bian’s bolder espresso-stout ice cream.

If he was bothered by the substitution, Henry did not let on.  Now that’s a good sport.

Roka Akor
456 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654


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Roka Akor (Chicago): Architect Dwayne MacEwen designs a Zen-chic interior for a new Japanese eatery

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Architect Dwayne MacEwen designed Roka Akor to have both stunning elements — such as the robata grill-sushi bar — and understated areas of "repose." Photo by Lara Kastner

There are those with a strong appreciation for natural beauty.  And Dwayne MacEwen of Chicago-based DMAC Architecture is one of them.

The architect is behind the Zen-chic design of River North’s Roka Akor, the flaming-hot new Japanese robata grill and sushi restaurant.

A “conceptual” version of the restaurant already existed at Roka Akor’s original Scottsdale, Ariz., location.  But MacEwen wanted to add his own imprint to the Chicago outpost’s blueprints.   And he set out to bring “an emotional impact to the space,” which is located at the bustling intersection of Clark and Illinois Streets.

MacEwen was inspired by the simple, natural ingredients chef Ce Bian incorporates into his artfully presented dishes. Photo courtesy of Dwayne MacEwen

MacEwen drew inspiration from Roka Akor’s acclaimed chef Ce Bian, who uses “very simple, natural ingredients” in his cuisine, the architect says.  Bian is a master at crafting simple foods into magnificent dishes.  MacEwen also knows how to create an end product that is greater than the sum of its parts.  So here, some of the most humble, natural materials — wood, rocks, old nails — are artfully used to create highly distinctive features.

“You don’t need a $50,000 chandelier to make something wonderful,” MacEwen says.

Striving to “choreograph the user’s experience,” MacEwen employed a “path-and-reward system of moving through the space.”

“We want to create a hierarchy to the space,” he says.  “Oftentimes, everything tries to become important to the design. But you need repose.”

So MacEwen carefully divided the immense restaurant into unified yet unique zones that take guests on an amazing journey that begins right at Roka Akor’s entrance.  Here, diners step into a box-like pavilion composed of teak slats.  Through the slats, diners get both a preview of the bustling main dining room and a peek into a side small-group dining space.

The lounge/main bar features a number of striking design elements. Photo by Lara Kastner

The foyer opens directly onto the gorgeous but unpretentious lounge/main bar area.  The intricately detailed room juxtaposes a series of focal pieces with a number of quieter elements.  The architect designed the 60-seat lounge “to be a backdrop to Clark Street,” which lies just beyond the bar’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Indeed, the street electrifies the space — but so do other components.  Structural columns are hidden under sculptural sleeves constructed from thousands of small teak blocks and rubber cording.  The columns, which resemble high-art Jenga towers, “are very living and organic,” MacEwen says.  The columns are designed to change shape if someone moves them.

Other distinctive elements include the room’s Asian-inspired patterned teak ceiling and the 3-D “scissor wall” at the room’s far end.  Composed of dramatically lit scissored teak panels, the wall is meant to represent a stylized sunrise/sunset.

The room’s main bar is a clean-lined conglomeration of natural materials.  The bar, which is paired with rounded chocolate leather and wood bar stools, features a live-edge walnut top over a black slate base.  The back bar wall is made of white limestone and flanked by horizontal bands of rustic raked poplar.

MacEwen unified the large space by carrying over features — including these teak block column covers — from one area to another. Photo by Lara Kastner

Not to be ignored are the two stunning tiger marble communal tables that stand next to the bar and provide a natural break between the bar and  lounge areas.  The custom-made tables are also perfectly matched with the bar stools — only here in vanilla leather.

MacEwen furnished the lounge with “clubby” pieces.  Yes, there’s a cool built-in wood and upholstered sofa that divides the entry and lounge areas, as well as funky wood bundled twig cocktail tables.  But the majority of the custom furnishings are unfussy wood tables paired with contemporary blocky wood and upholstered chairs.

Visitors can transition seamlessly from the main bar into the dining room.  In order to unite the rooms, MacEwen carried over a number of features, including:  the raw wood plank flooring; those Jenga-esque columns; and the natural stone and raked poplar wallcoverings.

However, “the star in the space is definitely the robata grill,” MacEwen says.

Undoubtedly, the room’s massive robata grill-sushi bar is at the top of the restaurant’s design hierarchy.  The grill’s hood is masked by a wondrous grid-like sculpture that hangs over the bar.  Made from approximately 20,000 nails procured from a 19th-century grain elevator, the custom-designed and welded piece is backlit for added impact.  The colored backlighting — pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month  when we visited — is one of only a few color pops in the restaurant’s otherwise all-natural palette.

The sophisticated dining room is minimally designed to let the robata grill-sushi bar take center stage. Photo by Lara Kastner

The rust-colored leather seats that line the live-edge walnut sushi bar provide the most notable color flash in the dining room.  Both the style of the dining bar and its seating evoke the look of the main bar.

“Whether [the seats] are occupied or not, they always have a presence in the room,” MacEwen says.

MacEwen favors this private dining pocket that is tucked away next to the entry pavilion. Photo by Lara Kastner

In order to offer repose in contrast to the drama, the remainder of the 220-seat room is designed with an understated elegance.  Once again, the architect uses wood tables, but now “shuffles up the deck a little” by matching them with minimalist light leather- and wood-backed dining chairs.  A row of raised bench booths lines the room’s glass-enclosed back wine storage wall.

MacEwen also designed two private dining spaces.  There’s an auxiliary room in the back that features such innovative features as curtain of hanging limestone boulders and a suspended stick bale ceiling sculpture.

But it’s the aforementioned slat-walled and ceilinged private dining pocket that’s one of the architect’s favorite spots.  The small room holds little else besides a wood communal dining table and chairs.

“You feel protected,” MacEwen says of the intimate space for eight to ten.  “There’s no decoration at all.  The light is the points of light that come through the slats.”

Roka Akor
456 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

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25 Degrees (Chicago): Spiked soda fountain specialties (and more) add fizz to an eatery’s drink menu

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Focused on fun, the beverage menu offers spiked milkshakes, sodas and floats. Photo by Alex Janowski

“Spiked milkshakes — what’s more fun than a spiked milkshake?” asks Joe Boumaroun, co-owner of 25 Degrees, River North’s new upscale burger bar.

Well, if pressed, I could think of at least a few things.  But Joe has a point.  Particularly since the bar-restaurant offers eight delightfully grown-up twists on the quintessential burger joint shake ($10).  All feature creamy Häagen-Dazs premium ice cream.

Beverage manager Mike Anderson can be found shaking things up at 25 Degrees. Photo by Alex Janowski

Take 25 Degrees’ Turkish Latte, a literally intoxicating blend of Bailey’s Irish Cream, iced espresso, coffee ice cream and spicy cardamom.  Indeed, it was a fun follow-up to my gourmet bacon cheeseburger.  And it was a tough choice given some of the other options, which included the Salty Caramel (Maker’s Mark whiskey, butterscotch vanilla ice cream and Hawaiian red sea salt) and the Guinness Milkshake (Guinness stout, house-made chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream).

Also shaking up the eatery’s cocktail menu are orange, grape and cream “spiked sodas” ($9) and “adult floats” ($10).  I kicked off my lunch with an “orange soda,” a combo of Stolichnaya orange vodka, Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, Orange Crush and orange juice.

“It tastes like Fanta out of the bottle, right?” says Mac Boumaroun, who owns 25 Degrees with his brother Joe.

Indeed it did, Mac — with a lot more of a “pop,” so to speak.  Thankfully, the restaurant doesn’t offer free refills on its spiked sodas — otherwise, I would have been in trouble.

25 Degrees is an offshoot of a small chain of L.A. “bordello-meets-burger-bar” eateries.  And most of its clever cocktails were originally mixologist-conceived for the flagship location in Hollywood’s historic Roosevelt Hotel.

Signature cocktails are ingredient-focused. Photo by Alex Janowski

In addition to its “spikes,” the restaurant also offers a list of hand-crafted signature cocktails ($11) which, adhering to the restaurant’s philosophy, feature fresh and house-made ingredients.

“Everything is handmade here, so why not hand- craft the cocktails?” Joe says.

At the top of the list is the ever-popular Redhead in Bed.  Thoroughly enjoyed by my friend M., this kicky little cocktail tops off Hanger Citron vodka, muddled strawberries and fresh lemon juice with a douse of sparkling wine.  My other dining and drinking companions CoCo and O. endorsed the Mayday, a mix of Maker’s Mark, Domaine De Canton Ginger Liqueur, fresh orange and soda.

The restaurant also offers a smattering of beers and a reasonably priced wine list that covers all the basics — Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Cab, etc.  All bottles are in the $22-to-$45 range.

Wine drinkers will find affordable varietals. Photo courtesy of 25 Degrees

“We don’t want to overwhelm [people] with the wine, since we have all these cocktails to choose from,” Mac says.

The list has something “to satisfy any wine drinker — it’s small, but has nice variety,” Joe says.

“People are looking for value these days, and we want [our list] to be nice and affordable so if you and your lady come out for a drink, you don’t break the bank.”

25 Degrees Chicago
736 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

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25 Degrees (Chicago): Burgers heat up the menu at a new downtown joint

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25 Degrees recommends eating its burgers medium rare, but does not discriminate against those who prefer theirs more well done. Photo by Alex Janowski

Twenty-five degrees is the temperature difference between a medium-rare and a well-done hamburger.

One gets the impression that 25 Degrees, a new River North burger bar, is giving customers a major hint as to how their burgers should ideally be cooked.  Even our pleasant waitress ever-so-gently urged us to go medium rare.

No dice, sister.  Our foursome was made up of unabashed lovers of well-done meat.  And although the menu is “chef-driven” — it was created by the restaurant chain’s California chef-founder Tim Goodell — thankfully, there were no icy stares or upturned noses when we went medium-well and well-done.

The restaurant features options — appetizers, sandwiches and salads — for those who want to go beyond burgers. Photo by Alex Janowski

That’s because brothers Mac and Joe Boumaroun, who own the chain’s sole Chicago outpost, are all about making people feel at ease in their joint.

So although craft burgers — offered with house-made sauces, epicurean toppings and gourmet cheeses— are at the heart of 25 Degrees’ menu, there’s also an array of contemporary appetizers, comforting sandwiches and lady-friendly fresh salads, they note.

“We wanted to widen our market,” Joe says.  “We didn’t want just burger eaters.  We wanted everybody.”

Appetizers, therefore, are “pretty unique and totally diverse — from our spicy tuna [on crispy eggplant chips] to our [ricotta-blue cheese stuffed] bacon-wrapped dates,” he says.  If you ask us, faux-healthy, ever-so-lightly-battered tempura green and yellow beans ($9) with tarragon remoulade also deserve a little recognition.

With the exception of the plain and sweet potato fries ($2/$4), all menu items — down to hand-cut and battered onion rings ($2/$4) — are fresh and house-made.  “There’s nothing that comes in frozen and that needs to be defrosted,” Joe says.

Most condiments are house-made, and the eatery offers a plethora of upscale toppings and gourmet cheeses. Photo by Alex Janowski

Sandwiches include high-end renditions of snack shop classics.  A Sonoran hot dog ($10.50) is a modern-day cross between a chili dog and a francheezie that features a bacon-wrapped Bobak hot dog with caramelized onion, pinto beans, queso fresco, fresh chiles, garlic aioli and more.  The popular fried egg sandwich ($12) combines Applewood smoked bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and herb aioli.

Go ahead and be healthy if you want... Photo by Alex Janowski

The “how-does-a-hamburger-possibly-taste-this-good?” burgers are simply not to be ignored.  Yes, one of the ladies was swayed by the roasted beet salad ($7/$12), and Little M. was rewarded with a robust mix of citrus vinaigrette-dressed red and orange beets, melty burrata cheese and baby arugula.  But the rest of us were corrupted by those burgers, which are available in beef ($9), turkey ($8) or house-made veggie ($7) variations.

The 9-ounce, hand-formed beef burgers are a proprietary blend of three meats, simply seasoned with salt and pepper and served on a paper-wrapped, fresher-than-fresh brioche bun.

(You can nose around a bit on the Internet if you’re dying to know what makes these hefty mothers so amazingly good.)

The restaurant offers four signature burgers ($12).  O. attempted to be good, topping her savory turkey patty with avocado, fresh diced jalapeno and chipotle sauce ($1 each). But CoCo and I both opted for the diet-busting Number One.

But I recommend you indulge. Photo courtesy of 25 Degrees Chicago

After all, 25 Degrees “is a place where you want to indulge,” Joe says.  “Go big or go home with the burgers.”

The Number One was certainly indulgent — albeit hard to put down — and featured caramelized onions, Vella Toma and and Ader Käse Reserve cheeses, bacon, arugula and Thousand Island dressing.  I swapped my plain bacon for fiery and addictive jalapeno bacon.

Cooked to medium-well perfection, it was one well done burger.

25 Degrees Chicago
736 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

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25 Degrees (Chicago): A pair of brothers brings a touch of old Hollywood glamor to a new River North burger bar

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The restaurant's vintage Hollywood-inspired design has been described as "bordello meets burger bar." Photo by Alex Janowski

25 Degrees touts itself as a “bordello meets burger bar.”  But rest assured that you won’t find any ladies of ill repute languidly lounging around this cute new River North bar-restaurant.

The burger bar is actually an offshoot of a California chain founded by food and wine impresarios Tim and Liza Goodell, and it was an L.A. journalist who deemed its decadent décor brothel-esque.

“It was never the intent to design a place to look like a bordello,” but the fun tagline stuck, says Joe Boumaroun, who owns the Chicago location with his brother Mac.

Brothers Joe and Mac Boumaroun carried over some of 25 Degrees' design elements from the original eatery in Hollywood, Calif. Photo by Alex Janowski

The Boumarouns had been looking for an upscale burger concept to bring to the city and became enamored with 25 Degrees, whose flagship restaurant is located in the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

“We liked the ambiance, the décor, everything about it,” Mac says.  So the Boumarouns carried over several key design elements from the original 25 Degrees and replicated them in the River North spot that formerly housed the blues bar Blue Chicago.

Like its California cousins, the 88-seat bar-restaurant features flocked ruby-red wallpaper, oxblood Naugahyde button-tufted banquettes and clubby semicircular booths as well as black lacquered chandeliers.

But the brothers also added a number of their own touches, having developed an eye for hospitality design “from going to a number of high-end and casual restaurants,” Mac says.

The brothers added some of their own touches — such as beaded chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors — to the bar-restaurant's design. Photo by Alex Janowski

They repaired the beat-up maple flooring — which was originally reclaimed from an old school gymnasium — and stained it a deep cherry hue.  The eatery’s rich wood wainscoting and imposing vintage U-shaped bar were also refurbished and restained.  And retro Hollywood oxblood Naugahyde and steel stools were selected as bar seating.

To further glamorize the space, the Boumarouns added a number of additional baubled and beaded chandeliers and few ornate wall sconces.  And they mixed in gilt-framed mirrors with the bar-eatery’s obligatory wall-mounted flat-screen televisions.

“It has a sexy vibe,” Mac says of the space.  And female visitors find the look particularly inviting.

The "sexy" interior elevates the burger bar concept. Photo by Alex Janowski

For the remaining furnishings, simple wood tables and highboys were matched respectively with unfussy, clean-lined chairs and stools.  The unornamented pieces were chosen so as not to detract from the room’s other, frillier elements.

“The simplicity of the [furniture] is a nice touch,” Joe says.

The brothers believe that the restaurant’s old-school Hollywood aesthetic sets it apart from other “wood-and-steel” burger joints.

Says Joe:  “It looks like we could be selling $60 or $70 steaks here.”

25 Degrees Chicago
736 North Clark Street
Chicago, Illinois  60654

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Perennial Virant (Chicago): A beverage director syncs his wine and beer list with Chef Paul Virant’s seasonal, local cuisine

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Beverage director Peter Anderson looks for unique, Midwestern-produced wines and beers that pair well with Paul Virant's farm-to-table dishes. Photo by

Perennial Virant’s Peter Anderson has to be on his game.

After all, when you’re the beverage director at chef Paul Virant’s restaurant, things are subject to change — regularly.

“Paul’s food is local and seasonal.  He has great finesse with his dishes,” Anderson says.  “I try to find wine that will go with his food.

Anderson often tinkers with the wine list to keep pace with Virant's menu changes. Photo courtesy of Peter Anderson

“It’s interesting to play the game with Paul.  He changes the menu so often.  How do you pair wine with the food when the menu changes every three or four days?”

But Anderson says he’s up for the challenge.  He makes major changes to the list about twice a year and then continuously tinkers as needed.  As fall hits its peak,  Anderson is getting ready to pull some of the Lincoln Park eatery’s more summery wines and add heartier replacements.

“In the next month, I’ll change 30 or 40 wines on the list,” or roughly a quarter of Perennial Virant’s offerings, he says.

The restaurant’s list is heavily populated with wines from France and California. But Anderson makes it a point to include varietals from around the globe, including some from close to home.  Several come from The Great Lake State — and the list includes a section specifically devoted to varietals “from our friends in Michigan.”

“Paul is all about locality and the Midwest, so we’re always looking at wine from Michigan,” says Anderson, who thus far hasn’t “really been impressed” with offerings from other Midwestern states.

Anderson devotes a section of his list to Michigan wines. Photo courtesy of Old Shore Vineyards

One of Anderson’s personal favorites is 2009 Old Shore Vineyards Pinot Noir ($60).  He describes this Buchanan, Mich., red as a “really rustic, old world wine with a great earthiness to it.”

Anderson also likes to bring in unusual, small label wines — some of which he categorizes as “oddballs & misfits.”

“When you go out to eat, you don’t want to drink the wine that you could go out to the grocery store and purchase.”

Another one of his top picks, therefore, is the little-known 2010 Acustic Cellars Garnacha Blanca ($50). Medium-bodied with peach and stone fruit flavors, this Spanish wine has “great acidity” and is particularly “food friendly,” he says.

The restaurant focuses on Midwestern-brewed beers. Photo by Valentyn Volkov

When it comes to beer, Anderson also likes to showcase offbeat labels.  And he favors brews from Midwestern states such as Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.  So diners can expect to find names such as Capital Brewery’s Tett Doppelbock ($7) from Middleton, Wis., and Chicago Beer Company’s Chi-Town Windy City Wheat ($5).

Anderson highly recommends Dragon’s Milk ($10) from Michigan’s New Holland Brewing Company.  The richly flavored stout, he says, “will blow your face off.”

The restaurant, which is all about handcrafting, also will periodically offer custom-brewed house beers from local beer makers, Anderson says.

Last spring, for example, Virant and Anderson worked with Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery to create PVK (Paul Virant Kolsch).

Says Anderson:  “We sold out of it in two weeks.”

Perennial Virant
1800 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60614


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Perennial Virant (Chicago): Celebrated chef Paul Virant takes his farm-to-table ways to the big city

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Chef Paul Virant, who garnered awards and accolades at his acclaimed suburban restaurant Vie, was looking to open an urban eatery and jumped at the chance to head the kitchen at Lincoln Park's Perennial — now rechristened Perennial Virant. Photo by

Long before it became de rigueur for Chicago chefs to list farmers’ names on their menus, Paul Virant was giving shout-outs to his Midwestern purveyors.

Since 2004, Virant has celebrated small, local farmers at Vie, his farm-to-table eatery in sleepy suburban Western Springs.  And he racked up scads of awards and tons of accolades for his seasonal farm-to-table cuisine, all the while seeming to steer clear of the 312 restaurant scene.

So it was major foodie news when this admirably down-to-earth celebrity chef agreed to head the Boka Restaurant Group’s Perennial.  The invitation followed Ryan Poli’s announcement last winter that he was leaving the popular Lincoln Park eatery to preside over the soon-to-open Tavernita.

Virant divides his time, although not equally, between his two eateries. Photo courtesy of Perennial Virant

Virant was coincidentally looking to open an urban restaurant when the Boka Restaurant Group offered to make him chef-partner and rename the Lincoln Park restaurant Perennial Virant, he says.

“The timing was there,” says Virant, who took over this spring after the restaurant underwent a redesign.

Currently, Virant’s splitting his time — 75 percent at Perennial Virant, 25 percent at Vie — between the two upscale eateries.

“Now the Chicago area has two restaurants that really stay true to what they’re talking about and what they do,” says Virant, who literally pops across the street to shop at Chicago’s Green City Market.

His mission at both eateries is “to really try and capture and showcase Midwestern farmers, artisans and cheese makers.

“The philosophy of the food is the same, but with the menu here [at Perennial Virant] being distinctly different.”

The menu focuses on seasonal, locally grown food served in small, medium and large portions. Photo by

Unlike Vie’s traditional appetizer-salad/soup-entrée menu, Perennial Virant offers small, medium and large plates.  Virant finds this structure freeing.

“It’s fun.  There aren’t really any rules.  You just have to keep [the dishes] within the size categories.”

Virant has long appreciated fresh, farm-grown produce.  As a child growing up in St. Louis, Virant and his family made Sunday visits to a rural oasis known as Gumbo Flats, where they purchased fruits and vegetables.

“I can remember my parents getting excited about asparagus,” says Virant, whose grandparents were also avid cooks and gardeners.

Perennial Virant’s motto is “eat what you can, and can what you can’t,” as the chef is dedicated to canning foods “at the peak of their flavor.”

“We preserve for the off-season,” says Virant, who stores his house-canned goods in the restaurant’s basement and displays them on shelves in the dining room.

Virant has a passion for canning and pickling and mixes his house-preserved foods with fresh ingredients. Photo by

His dishes often feature such delights as hand-crafted preserves and pickled produce, which are then mixed with fresh, seasonal ingredients.

On a visit with our new friends The Judge and his popular wife, The Connector, we started with a selection of small and medium plates.  (Please keep in mind that Virant changes his menu frequently, so what we ate may no longer be available during your visit.)

Warm and creamy summer bean casserole ($9) was an upscale take on the ‘60s classic.  But freshly roasted beans stood in for Great Giant canned ones.  And Campbell’s mushroom soap and Durkee onions were nowhere to be found, instead replaced by Capriko cheese, La Quercia prosciutto, sweet peppers, button mushrooms and home-fried onions.

Roasted sweet corn ($11) was a “can’t miss” with me since it featured so many things I love — (Heritage Prairie Farm) tomatoes, sheep’s milk feta and crunchy fresh cucumbers.  The late-summer salad was perfectly married with a light roasted garlic vinaigrette.

Virant describes his cuisine as “New American.”  “Our country is such a melting pot with cultural influences from all over the world,” but “our menu, at the core, has a Midwestern feel to it,” he says.

Indeed, as Italian-style Yukon gold potato gnocchi ($14) was served as a comforting broccoli-cheese church picnic casserole.  Once again, top-quality fresh ingredients stood in for store-bought ones.  The dish combined Nichols broccoli, Nordic Creamery smoked cheddar, smoked ham and crème fraiche.

We also sampled the beef short rib epigram ($11), which is best described as a barbecued beef short rib cake.  The crisp and flaky “cake” was served with peppery cabbage slaw and Virant’s canned sweet pepper aigre-doux.

Virant was one of the first chefs in the Chicago area to acknowledge and showcase his purveyors. Photo courtesy of Perennial Virant

From there we moved on to a trio of large plates.  The Judge had his heart set on Howling Hounds Farm fried chicken ($19).  Virant does a very straightforward interpretation of traditional buttermilk-battered chicken, but dresses it up with creamy stone-ground grits, pickled chow chow relish and tomatoes provençale.

The Connector selected butter knife-tender Gunthorp Farms duck breast ($17).  Served with Italian greens, Mick Klug Farm grapes, nasturtium leaves, almonds and citrus vinaigrette, the dish was an ode to summer’s end.  (The Connector, not surprisingly, is acquainted with Virant’s grape grower.)

The Husband’s crispy Great Lakes walleyed pike ($21) was, well, crispy and lake fresh.  Accompaniments included smoked tomato vinaigrette, arugula, a tangy-sweet buttermilk mayo and crumbly cornbread hush puppies.

Desserts also feature farm- fresh ingredients. Photo by

I would have been content with any — and all — of pastry chef Elissa Narrow’s sweets (all $8).

But we settled on tangy, airy Prairie Fruits Farm chèvre fritters with tart house-made blueberry jam and Virant’s own sweet and sticky beehive honey, as well as a cozy cookie assortment that included such favorites as blondies, thumbprints and pecan diamonds.

As our meal concluded, we decided that the restaurant, under Virant’s watchful eye, could become a perennial favorite.

Perennial Virant
1800 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60614

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Perennial Virant (Chicago) – A top designer cleans house when chef Paul Virant arrives at a perennial favorite

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The Boka Group asked designer Karen Herold to give one of their restaurants a touch-up in anticipation of the arrival of chef Paul Virant; Herold gutted the eatery. Photo by

I confess.  I have a serious “designer crush” on Karen Herold.

Herold, of Chicago’s 555, has become the “go to” designer for the city’s winning Boka Restaurant Group.  And she’s drawn national attention for the stunning interiors at Boka’s Girl & the Goat and GT Fish & Oyster.

So although we’ve featured her work twice on Fine this year, we couldn’t resist studying her most recent completed (well, almost) project for Boka.  This spring she was brought in to give Boka’s Perennial restaurant a freshening-up as the Lincoln Park eatery changed chefs — from Ryan Poli to Paul Virant (Vie) — and was rebranded as Perennial Virant.

Herold completed the remodel on a tight timeline with serious budget constraints. Photo courtesy of 555

“I saw it as if [Perennial Virant] was the parents of the The Girl & the Goat and GT Fish & Oyster,” Herold says of the restaurant, which overall attracts a more subdued, mature crowd.  “It’s not where you’re going to meet your future husband.  It’s a date night place.”

Herold had just two weeks to complete her design, which started off as a minor spruce-up and turned into a full-blown gut job.  Construction was completed in a “super quick” 40 days.

“There was a lot of pressure in terms of time and money,” says Herold, who had a limited budget to make major upgrades to the kitchen and rejuvenate the dining room and bar/lounge area.

All of the former Perennial 's design elements were completely removed, including a birch tree "forest" and the fabric covering over the ceiling. Photo courtesy of Eater Chicago

Herold wanted the restaurant’s interior to connect with chef Virant’s fresh and seasonal culinary style.  So it became her mission to give the space “an updated, sophisticated look with an urban garden feel — so you feel like you’re sitting in a garden room.  I wanted to make it fresh without being trendy.”

The designer took a number of steps to “lighten and brighten” the eatery, but she started by essentially removing everything from the fussy space — from a birch tree “forest” to a foofy fabric ceiling covering — and opening up the compartmentalized dining room.

And from there, she was off in a race to beat the clock.

A wood trellis panel was placed into the newly revealed ceiling and strung with inexpensive garden-style lights.  The existing walnut wood floor was repaired and then bleached to make it lighter and less formal.  “Bleaching it gave it a very different character,” Herold says.

Virant's garden-fresh culinary style inspired Herold to create a sophisticated space with an urban garden feel. Photo by

Spring-green-and-white concrete tiles were also inlaid on the floor in a striped pattern. Two communal X-legged wood tables that resemble stylish picnic tables then were placed on top.

Herold intended the space to be “timeless, but make sense right now.”  So she looked for ways to give the room a comfortable vintage — but current — look, all while staying within an impossibly tight budget.

Simple oak butcher block tables with metal bases are paired with a variety of seating — including $80 Ikea upholstered dining chairs that Herold selected to stretch her budget.

“People are sitting on $80 dining chairs so others can sit on $2,000 banquettes across the room,” says Herold, who splurged on expensive fabrics to get just the look she wanted.

A built-in cabinet that holds Virant's colorful canned produce is both functional and aesthetically appealing. Photo by

The center of the room is dominated by an expanse of pretty sage-green tufted velvet banquettes.  Upholstered in subtle pinstripe, nailhead-trimmed high-backed banquettes line the room’s south and west ends.  And on the north end, wood-legged banquettes are lined up back-to-back to create booth-like seating.

Herold, who tends to stay away from traditional art pieces, decorated the room with an enormous European white oak built-in that holds jars filled with Virant’s colorful canned fruits and vegetables, but also functions as a serving station.  The room’s back wall is covered by a mirror with a dappled painted glass overlay.

There are two pieces of conventional art in the eatery — two colorful farm photographs hang in the restaurant — one by the entrance, the other in a small dining nook off the main room.  The photos bring color to the mostly neutral space.

Herold blew part of her budget on conversation-provoking lighting.  Oversized outdoor harbor-style fixtures appear as sconces and repeat in the chandeliers that hang over the communal tables.  And there’s a charming fixture in the nook crafted from a metal milk bottle tray and Mason jars.

Herold carefully managed her budget, opting to splurge on unique light fixtures while selecting Ikea dining chairs. Photo by

“For Paul, it’s all about canning,” says Herold, who designed the fixture as nod to one of the chef’s passions.

Herold also did an understated makeover in the lounge area by adding small-scale chocolate leather club chairs, tufted “French chairs” and unpretentious sisal carpeting.

And then she ran out of money.

Herold would still like to do some more work on the bar area, and she’s hoping to get her clients to give her a bit more money to buy new bar stools and change a few other things in the space.

Perennial Virant, she says, “is a work in progress.”

Perennial Virant
1800 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60614

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China Poblano (Las Vegas): An eatery tells the tale of two countries through its beverage menu

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China Poblano presents classic Mexican and Asian cocktails, but adds spirited updates in their ingredients and presentation. Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

China Poblano, José Andrés’ new casual street food restaurant, celebrates the eats and drinks of China and Mexico.  But the eatery does not blend the two distinct cultures when it comes to beverages.

Instead, Lucas Paya, beverage director for Andrés’ restaurant group, laid out the manageable menu in a separate but (almost) equal fashion.

Currently, there are five Mexican- and four Chinese-style featured cocktails on the list.

The Salt Air Margarita is celebrity chef José Andrés’ best-known drink. Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

“Some are traditional recipes,” Paya says.  “Some are takes on classics, so we give those a more Chinese or Mexican touch.”

Of course, even a half-Mexican restaurant must serve margaritas.  And Andrés is famed for his Salt Air version ($12) — a classic margarita topped with a custom-created “salty, limey foam,” Paya says.  But other combinations also include fun twists.  Margarita “Sal de Gusano” ($12) is presented in “a very special” salt-rimmed glass.  Gusano translates to “worm.”  And here the glass’ rim is dipped in a Oaxacan blend of salt, chile — and yes — roasted gusano.

In addition to margaritas, China Poblano offers a Mexican mimosa ($10) that blends sparkling wine with freshly squeezed juice.  The restaurant was featuring cucumber juice the morning we were in.  And the cool cucumber mixed nicely with the crisp bubbly — so nicely, in fact, that I treated myself to two.

“The whole point is to create something that is delicious and looks good, that is playful and has a sense of humor,” says Paya in reference to his cocktails.

And that holds true for the Chinese drinks as well as the aforementioned Mexican offerings.  Yes, the restaurant serves some traditional Tiki-style cocktails.  There’s the Singapore Sling ($12), which uses the original recipe from the Raffles Hotel.  Or the Lychee Sour ($12) — the equivalent of a classic pisco sour, China Poblano’s version incorporates lychee purée into the drink, which infuses it with “a Chinese flavor,” Paya says.

Lemon Drop "Soup" is really a lemon drop cocktail served with faux "noodles" and chopsticks. Photo courtesy of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas

But there’s also Lemon Drop “Soup” ($12).  “It’s like a noodle soup, but it’s a cocktail,” Paya explains.

He likens this whimsical drink to a lemon drop cocktail (vodka, lemon juice), that is then garnished with jellied “noodle” strips and served with chopsticks.  Cold “Tea” for Two ($22), a green tea-tequila-beer punch, is cheerily presented in a tea pot.

China Poblano also promotes beer ($6 per bottle), which Paya deems “fun for the concept.”  Once again, there is a smattering of Mexican (Corona Light, Negra Modelo, Victoria) and Chinese (Tsingtao, Yanjing) brews.  But Paya recently began offering a list of five specialty beers, which he recommends pairing with specific China Poblano dishes.

Beverage director Lucas Paya says that beer pairs well with the eatery's rich and flavorful Chin-Mex cuisine.

“Then you can order the five beers and 10 menu items for three to four people and have a complete experience,” he says.

Suggested pairings include thirst-quenching Saison DuPont farmhouse ale ($8) with carnitas tacos and queso fundido, as well as the sour beer Ichtegem’s Flemish Red Ale ($16) with the restaurant’s Ria Jia Mo (red braised pork sandwich) and Pollo a la Parilla (grilled chicken) Taco.

The restaurant also presents a brief list of sparkling white and red wines, which tend to focus on “leaner versus bolder” wines, Paya says.  These “bright,” mostly Californian and French wines tend to “cut through the flavors and richness of the cuisine.”

Only one is currently from the restaurant’s showcased regions, which are not well known for their wines.  The eatery is currently offering 2003 Casa de Piedra Vino de Piedra red wine from Baja.  But Paya is currently looking into adding a variety of Chinese and Mexican wines to match the restaurant’s concept — provided they meet his taste and quality standards, he says.

“It’s all in the works.”

China Poblano
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, Nevada  89109

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