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Mark Robertson co-owns the GLBT sports bar Crew Bar & Grill in Uptown, and SoFo Tap in Andersonville. But he grew up on a farm, and dreamed of having a place in the city that better reflected where food really comes from in the midwest. Chef Diana Davida was part of a restaurant group in D.C. that included a hipster taqueria, but despite her Mexican-American heritage, she mainly made American and continental food. But when she saw Robertson's ad for a chef for a modern, farm-to-table Mexican restaurant, she thought, "I love Mexican food, I should totally cook it. This is what I was meant to do."
And that's why she'll be cooking a Day of the Dead-themed Mexican menu tonight in the last of a series of preview dinners for Cantina de la Granja, opening in Andersonville in March. (You can get more information and tickets here.) The dinners have utilized locally grown goods, and all proceeds have gone to food-focused nonprofits (the Green City Market in tonight's case), as Cantina de la Granja seeks to establish relationships with local suppliers and farmers.
"Everybody says they're doing farm-to-table," Robertson acknowledges, "but our goal is to maintain 75 percent or so farm-to-table [sourcing] year round. Beyond that, we’re looking to establish a superstrong relationship with these farmers, to go beyond just buying from them, we're looking to understand what they're doing and work with them to do some custom things for us.”
Cantina de la Granja isn't just working with farms‚ it will be a farm. The restaurant is located in a 19th century building (the former T's Bar at 5025 N. Clark), but a garage behind it is being torn down and replaced with a new building which will have prep kitchens downstairs—and what promises to be one of the most elaborate rooftop gardens in town, with its own dedicated farmer. Besides growing things to use downstairs, Robertson says it will also serve as test area for ideas of what to grow—and if something works, then they can have one of their farmers grow it in greater quantities. (Interestingly, though, he also says that being up above the tree line and on top of a building that's generating heat makes the garden about a zone warmer than a typical Chicago bed—so it may extend the season for certain things by a month or so.)
I ask Robertson why he thought the area—Clark south of Foster—needed a Mexican restaurant specifically. "That area kind of needs any kind of restaurant," he says. "But that area specifically needed Mexican cuisine because a lot of the Mexican on the north side is not very good. It's kind of old-school Chicago Mexican. It has Lindo Guadalajara, that you go to at three in the morning, but it didn't have fine-dining Mexican. I love Mexican food, it's my go-to, and the neighborhood talked to us a lot about wanting Mexican. I like a challenge, and farm-to-table Mexican in the midwest seemed like a challenge."
Likewise Davida has responded to the challenge to use local ingredients in place of tropical ones. Her ceviche uses pristine lake fish like perch, and in place of citrus fruits, she finds other kinds of acid to cure the fish. Making a chile "ketchup" for another dish, she replaced cane sugar with a sugar that does grow in the midwest, sorghum, taking the flavors in an entirely new direction. "I made a mole broth last night. Moles always have fruit, and that's challenging right now because I haven't really preserved anything and there isn't much fruit. So I did pawpaw. I never had pawpaw, I didn't know anything about it. There's a whole learning curve about finding substitutes. So that's really where the modern and the hyperlocal comes in."
As Davida runs through the menu, she seems to be spinning off one great midwestern substitution after another, some brilliant, some potentially crazy, all things I would love to try. Okra as a substitute for nopales (cactus)? Both have a kind of gooey texture when cooked, so why not? Masa needs a fat to work (and taste good), and lard usually works just fine. But bone marrow sounds downright decadent, not to mention very much of the moment. She wrinkles her nose at the commodity stuff that passes for Mexican cheese in Chicago supermarkets, and mentions the artisanal cheesemaker she found making queso fresco and other Mexican-style cheeses with real character. Who wouldn't want to try that and know what you've been missing for so many tacos?
But as much as the tropes of contemporary dining have to do with the concept, it's also a reconnection with her roots for Davida—especially with tonight's dinner, centered on the Mexican holiday for remembering the dead. "It's not like horror Dia de los Muertos, but more the traditional holiday," she says. "I have a grandmother and an uncle that passed away [who] I learned a lot about food from. So a lot of the dishes are renditions of what they used to make, or what they liked to eat." Her grandmother made tortas de papas, so one dish is a take on that—though her abuela probably didn't go so far as to include seven or eight varieties of local potatoes, the chile-sorghum ketchup, or the aioli-hollandaise crema that she made to go with it.
Likewise, she's making an elk dish, after recently visiting Hawks Hill Ranch, which sells at the Green City Market—and she speaks of that experience through a Dia de los Muertos mindset as well: "I saw the connection that the rancher had with the animals. It makes you respect the meat more, and you want to lay it to rest in a respectful way. To say, you didn't die in vain, with all this delicious stuff you're with."