Jeffrey McCourt, publisher of the Windy City Times, has abandoned his budding career as a theater producer. Three years ago McCourt teamed with Robert Perkins and Jujamcyn Theaters to bring Angels in America to Chicago's Royal George Theatre. He then joined the board of American Blues Theatre, a small nonprofit troupe, and on several occasions voiced an interest in selling his newspaper.
But in mid-April McCourt announced he would be stepping down as American Blues' acting president, though he planned to remain on the board. Then two weeks later he quit the board completely. McCourt says he joined the theater approximately two years ago at the behest of ensemble member Kate Buddeke. At that time American Blues was facing a debt of more than $30,000. Buddeke admits McCourt was instrumental in helping the company return to operating in the black. "Jeff did a lot for us," she says.
McCourt's resignations came suddenly. In March he produced a revival of Lillian Hellman's melodrama Toys in the Attic in association with American Blues. Now, following that show's financial failure, McCourt says he's concerned the company is expanding too fast. American Blues has just hired a full-time artistic director, Brian Russell (formerly associate artistic director of Northlight Theatre), and plans to mount four plays next season after producing only one show this season on its own, The Flight of the Phoenix. "After spending two years getting American Blues out of debt, I didn't want to lead a ship back into troubled waters," says McCourt.
But McCourt's misgivings aren't shared by the theater. "I don't think we've bitten off anything we can't handle," says ensemble member Carmen Roman. The budget next season will jump to $150,000 from just under $100,000 this year.
Some say McCourt may be gun-shy after taking a hit. Toys in the Attic closed April 27, a month early. The closing was so abrupt the Chicago Tribune ran a photo from the play in its May 9 Friday section. McCourt says he took great pride in rediscovering an American classic, but many observers thought the work wasn't worth the trouble. While the production got mostly good reviews, it still wound up losing nearly $60,000.
On the strip of Clark Street just south of Chicago, you'll find a shuttered storefront, a liquor store, adult books, and a hot dog stand. You'll also see a few new bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. This is the spot where a trio of young entrepreneurs have built what they describe as a "bastion of elegance." Kathryn Sullivan, Jerry Suqi, and Herbert Riva have just opened Narcisse, an 80-seat "caviar bar and champagne salon" at 710 N. Clark. To look at the mirrored room by candlelight, you'd never guess it was a "dump" when Sullivan first found it. Suqi noted that the upscale restaurant Mango was next door and doing good business. He assured Sullivan their premise would prove key to their eventual success. "People are tired of the health-conscious era," he says, "and they want to treat themselves to something nice when they go out."
Suqi and Sullivan worked together briefly several years ago at Salvatore's in Lincoln Park. Their paths crossed again last year at Bice, where Suqi was a captain and Sullivan a hostess. That's where they hatched the plans for their own place and hired Herbert Riva as their food consultant. An executive chef at Bice, Riva began cooking as a youngster in a hotel on Italy's Lake Como. Riva says he got caught up in the excitement of doing something different and came onboard as the chef and third partner. "I was getting a little tired of preparing chicken parmesan for customers who didn't know what real Italian food was."
But things may not be easy for the trio. Others have tried to make caviar a major attraction, and they've all failed. Former restaurateur George Badonsky set up a lavish caviar bar in Maxim's, the Chicago branch of the famous Paris restaurant that he bought and attempted to resuscitate in the mid-80s. Customers stayed away from Badonsky's grand gamble in droves, and soon he closed both the restaurant and the caviar bar. Bloomingdale's also tried running a caviar bar when it first opened, but that too was short-lived.
Still, the caviar bar's moment may have arrived. "The concept could be coming back," says Sole Mio chef and owner Dennis Terczak. "People in the restaurant business are desperate to find something no one else is doing." Sullivan admits this was one of the reasons her partners gravitated toward the concept. "We could have opened another restaurant doing Italian food, but the idea just didn't appeal to us and wouldn't have set us apart." Restaurateur Joe Carlucci, who opened Iron Mike's last February in the Tremont Hotel, says he and partner Mike Ditka saw caviar on a lot of menus as they traveled the country looking for ideas. After toying with adding caviar to their menu, Carlucci and Ditka decided it was too expensive. Carlucci says, "We opted to offer lobster instead."
Narcisse's menu lists 50 champagnes and sparkling wines, 11 of which can be ordered by the glass. Prices range from $400 for a magnum of Louis Roederer Cristal 1989 down to $6 for a glass of the sparkling wine Prosecco Zardetto. Sullivan is particularly proud to be offering champagne by Ruinart, France's very first champagne house, though the brand is not well-known in the U.S. The caviar options are varied as well, from top-of-the-line Petrossian beluga for $100 an ounce down to the somewhat more proletarian Alaskan red salmon roe at $20 for two ounces. Narcisse's menu will also include such tapas items as prosciutto and melon, seared tuna with a cilantro dressing, and a warm brie with almonds and apples. For dessert, there are profiteroles filled with chocolate custard, a chocolate souffle, and an eggless custard. Sullivan says the menu reflects the restaurant's hedonistic raison d'etre.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Herbert Riva, Kathryn Sullivan, and Jerry Suqi by Nathan Mandell.