Laura Frankel and Dennis Wasko started experimenting with fine kosher cuisine in 1997. Frankel had kept a kosher kitchen at home for ten years and Wasko had never set foot in one, but both found the challenge of working within the strict culinary restrictions inspiring. They started a small catering company, testing the market for upscale kosher cuisine with innovative dishes like macadamia-nut-crusted snapper with mango-papaya salsa. They stored the hits away for future reference, and when the business took off, decided to try opening a contemporary kosher restaurant.
Since kosher law prohibits meat and dairy products from being prepared or eaten together, most kosher restaurants usually serve one or the other. Frankel and Wasko decided early on to go the meat route, and had no trouble finding kosher beef and poultry. Finding specialty products like duck, venison, and veal in the volume they needed was a bigger challenge. After unsuccessfully poking around Chicago for vendors, they traveled to New York City to tour upscale kosher restaurants and get information about their suppliers and shipping policies.
Lining up approved vendors was only the beginning. Only fish with both scales and fins are considered kosher, so filleting can't be done at a fish house, where the meat might come in contact with nonkosher mollusks and crustaceans. As a result, they could only buy whole fish, and had to fillet it themselves. This wasn't a big problem, but the size of available fish limited their selection. "If there's a 20-pound tuna and I think I'm going to sit on half of it, I can't buy it, " says Frankel. All food products must also be inspected by an in-house mashgiach--a kosher supervisor certified by the Chicago Rabbinical Council. Packaged products are checked to confirm that all bear a hechsher--the mark (usually a U or K in a circle) indicating they are kosher--on their labels. Inspecting fresh greens is more tedious. Every leaf must be observed over a light box for signs of insects. Any trace of insect--a wing, a leg, or even a trail where it nibbled--marks it as trayf (not kosher) and it is discarded.
Last spring, armed with all this newfound knowledge, they moved into the storefront at Belden and Clark formerly occupied by La Risotteria. They hired two mashgichim to work in shifts so that one is always on duty, and opened in June. "Setting up the bar was a monumental task, " says Frankel. Wine must be kosher, but also mevushal--flash-pasteurized before fermentation--so it may be poured by a non-Jew. "If the wine isn't mevushal but is kosher, I can open it for a customer but the minute my non-Jewish waiter or busboy touches the bottle, it's no longer kosher. The mevushal wine doesn't require the traditional blessing and can be poured by anyone."
Given a pastry chef's typical reliance on butter and other dairy products, desserts presented another set of challenges. But Frankel's come up with some creative solutions like exotic house-made sorbets in flavors such as quince, litchi, and sour cherry, and a liquid-centered chocolate cake called "The Black Hat" (a tongue-in-cheek nod to the clientele) that uses only high-quality Belgian chocolate, vanilla, and small doses of kosher margarine. There's also a baked Alaska of sorts--an artful log of sorbet baked into a meringue, perfectly browned, and finished with fruit garnish and a spun-sugar lightning bolt jutting off the side.
Dennis Wasko finds the whole process intriguing. "Trying to cook within the kosher restrictions is a great challenge," he says. "Rather than finishing a sauce with butter or heavy cream, I opt for dried fruits--the pectin acts as a thickener--or satiny vegetable reductions. The food ends up lighter and rich in flavor." His roast duck breast is a good example of the success of this tactic. It's served with duck confit, fingerling potatoes, and a tart cherry sauce. The sweet-potato-crusted salmon served on wilted greens with a cumin-spiked sweet-potato sauce shows off his skill with vegetables. The polenta appetizer features both a grilled portobello mushroom garnish and pomegranate vinaigrette.
The restaurant closes for the Sabbath by sundown on Friday and reopens after sundown on Saturday. Saturday nights feature a simple grill menu, since there's little prep time available. But despite the restrictions, the partners are intent on appealing to more than just a kosher clientele. As they see it, they're an upscale Mediterranean restaurant first, a kosher restaurant second. But judging from the current flow of Orthodox Jewish patrons, they'll have to work hard to alter their already established reputation.
Shallots is at 2324 N. Clark, 773-755-5205.
Ted Cizma (Grace) just wrapped up negotiations with the owners of the now-closed David's French Bistro in Naperville. If all goes well, he could have a suburban venue for his Contemporary American cuisine within two months.
Tony Mantuano, of Mantuano Mediterranean Table, and Taste America, the restaurant's majority owner, have parted ways. The restaurant is still open but will get a makeover--new chef, new name, new menu--in the next few weeks.
Steven Chiappetti's Mango is closed for "well-deserved renovation" for the next four to six weeks.
Peripatetic Dudley Nieto, last seen at Chapultepec, has landed again, this time at La Canasta. He plans to introduce a new menu featuring his trademark Oaxacan fare February 20, but it's available now on weekends.
Sweet Maple, a Taylor Street breakfast spot, plans to open for lunch in mid-February.
--Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.