Kasra Medhat, chef-owner of the Magnolia Cafe, which opened on a nondescript stretch of Wilson just ten days before Christmas, has spent the last six months learning that running a kitchen and running a whole restaurant are two completely different animals. "Everything went wrong not once, but three times," laments Lisa Karam, Medhat's girlfriend and the restaurant's manager/server/hostess. "I broke my foot, we had to rewire all of the electrical, we had six floods....The day before our opening party we had a gas leak. Luckily we have cooperative landlords."
"We were going into this blind at the beginning," says Kas, as everyone calls him, sitting in one of the chairs he refurbished himself. "We've done a lot of work to this space, and we're finally ready for customers."
As a kid growing up in Oak Brook, Medhat's main exposure to cooking was through his Iranian father ("a grill man") and his Turkish mother ("lots of rice dishes and vegetables"). He graduated in 1990 from Hinsdale Central High School, where he played singles tennis and was part of a state championship squad his senior year. After high school he moved to Winter Park, Florida, to attend Rollins College, where he gave up tennis in favor of a busy social life and graduated with an environmental studies major. "I didn't know what I was going to do. I hated office jobs." He enrolled at Evanston's Kendall College culinary school in 1996, working on the side at Jack's on Halsted (then Jack's American Blend), where chef and owner Jack Jones soon became a mentor. "At school they would say, 'Today we're going to make a mayonnaise,' and at work it was like, 'Just do it!' Culinary school alone just doesn't cut it. [Young chefs] have to get their asses kicked, spend tons of hours in a working kitchen, and the pay sucks....You have to have the passion."
Medhat's passion earned him an internship at Spruce, where opening chef Keith Luce ran a tight ship and taught him how to think like a professional. "He was knowledgeable about wine, vegetables....He was a very smart guy. He did everything, including pastries." Medhat ended up staying for two and a half years, learning more about the front of the house from Spruce's owner, Dan Sachs, who went on to open Bin 36. Medhat left Spruce just before it closed. For the next six months he held some odd jobs in catering and worked as a butcher at a friend's grocery store in Pilsen.
In July 2001, his brother noticed that the old Earth Market space at 1224 W. Wilson was available. The previous owners--caterers who opened to the public for lunch and brunch--were getting out of the business, and when Medhat signed the lease he also bought up their chairs, tables, and kitchen equipment. He and Karam ripped out the old water heater and then had to patch the resulting eight-foot hole. "We refinished the floor, built a bar, put up drywall, added the banquettes, and re-covered the chairs," he says. "It took us three days just to clean out the basement."
Medhat painted the restaurant himself (in warm tones of olive and magenta) and made wooden shelves for the bar. He and Karam glued fringe to the lampshades that now hang from the ceiling and shopped for the tiny silver vases and votive candleholders that grace each table; on the walls they hung a few framed pictures of magnolias (the restaurant's namesake is the nearest cross street). They also immersed themselves in the day-to-day minutiae of running a restaurant: buying the food, setting up a bar, writing the menu, and training the staff.
Medhat's contemporary American menu makes nods to Italy, Asia, Mexico, and France, but most customers will recognize every ingredient. Starters like curried chicken spring rolls with a chili-lime soy vinaigrette and chipotle pork quesadillas with roasted peppers, caramelized onions, and fresh guacamole are about as exotic as the Magnolia Cafe gets. Dishes that really let Medhat show off his all-American pedigree include a bright salad of apples, pears, and mixed greens perfectly balanced with red beets, domestic goat cheese, and spiced walnuts; pan-seared pork tenderloin in an applewood smoked bacon jus with creamed leeks, tender spaghetti squash, and a mound of braised red cabbage; and beef short ribs braised in red wine, garlic, and herbs and served over a mound of addictive caramelized onion whipped potatoes. Desserts--Medhat makes them all--are nothing fancy, but they deliver honest-to-goodness flavor: flourless chocolate banana cake is dressed up with honey whipped cream, a caramelized banana half, and homemade milk chocolate ice cream, while a vanilla-bean-laden creme brulee is saddled up to homemade madeleines embedded with fresh raspberries. Four ice cream flavors and four sorbets are offered each day. There's also a Sunday brunch menu, but Medhat has no plans to open for lunch yet.
Every now and then Chicago is blessed with a casual yet sophisticated neighborhood restaurant, the kind of place where you can stop in for a hearty entree and a good glass of wine for less than 30 bucks. Daniel J's, Savannah, and Sweet Spice have long since vanished; Erwin, Rose Angelis, and Cafe Selmarie are a few that have stuck around. Let's hope Medhat and Karam's hard work pays off and that Magnolia Cafe manages to do the same.
Magnolia Cafe is at 1224 W. Wilson, 773-728-8785.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.