"There's virtually nothing like it in the United States." That's what the venerable Rick Bayless said about his mysterious Randolph Row concept in November 2013, back when the project was in its infancy. 28 months later, Bayless finally revealed the full concepts on Friday—which include a restaurant inspired by the Baja region of Mexico named Leña Brava with a mezcal-focused beverage program, and a taqueria "of sorts" inside the previously-reported brewery named Cruz Blanca—as well as a target opening date of around two months.
Bayless chatted more about what customers can expect to eat, drink and see there, the inspiration behind the concepts, why they took so long to open, and much more.
Is there any basic information that you didn't release in the initial announcement?
I can tell you right now that Leña Brava is going to be really focused on seafood. We're going to have some meat and chicken on there and tons of vegetable dishes as well. The menu is 50/50 cooked dishes and raw/chilled seafood dishes. It's all based on traditional Mexican preparations but the cool thing about Baja is that is has a much more international feel to it (than other parts of Mexico) and even cooler is that the biggest influence in the cuisine from Baja comes from Asia. The cuisine of Baja is not heavy in sauces—there's only a couple of cooked sauces on our menu—everything tends to be a little lighter in Baja cuisine and focused on salsas rather than cooked sauce.
Leña Brava is going to be your first restaurant that's based on a specific region of Mexico. Why did you decide to do that?
You're exactly right but I'd rather say that it's not just based on the cuisine of that region but inspired by it. There are no real classics that came out of that region and we will be doing all these grilled fishes; the photo (above) is going to be one of our signature dishes and we're doing four different marinades for it (from four different regions). What I'm really inspired by is that there are so many unique ingredients from there and the fish is just astonishing. I'm a huge fan of wood-fired cooking—every place that I've ever opened has a wood fire in it—and so I thought that this is my opportunity to focus on lighter fare, entirely in a wood-fired kitchen. And we have two chefs (husband and wife team Lisa and Fred Despres) that are just amazing.
Tell me more about your chefs.
They met at Takashi; they were both cooking and learning about Japanese food. (Lisa) came and joined our staff and (Fred) became the chef at Arami. The Frontera parties are pretty legendary and he always showed up and whenever we had special events he'd volunteer to come along. I got to know him really well and one day I said we should do a mashup dinner. Last year we decided to do a crazy one-night thing over at Arami and we cooked Mexican dishes with Japanese ingredients and Japanese dishes with Mexican ingredients and I thought we made some of the very best food we've ever made. So when we started getting closer about this project I thought we should bring him in because he's a master of fish. He's been cooking at Frontera for the last six months getting ready. We're very excited because these are two of the most talented chefs in the city.
How did all these concepts come about in your head and how long have you been working on them?
This actually kind of came about because I had been spending a lot of time in Baja and it seemed like the next creative outlet for me because it's so different than the rest of our restaurants, and I thought "oh god, I'd love to have a restaurant with all live fire in it" but I thought it would be so hard to do. Then my partner in Frontera Foods got super into beer and Baja was one of the first places in Mexico to start having all these little microbreweries around so we thought we should do something inspired by (Baja) with a brewery and one thing started leading to another. We can brew all our own beer for the restaurants and the airport and all that; we're going to rotate some microbrews through there that are only available at the airport.
Does any of that explain the time it has taken to get this almost open?
The buildout took a lot longer than we expected. It's not in a building that was in good shape; this was probably the worst that you could possibly ever find. It would have been so much more economical to tear that building down and build a new one but we couldn't because it's in a protected area so we had to work with what we got and rebuild it from the inside. We had walls collapsing and all that because they weren't sound. But we're ready to do this right now and we have an amazing team here, not the least of which is my daughter is moving back to Chicago to become part of the management team here.
How are the spaces laid out?
It's two completely separate entities with two separate entrances, it's not like Frontera Grill where you go through one door and decide where you want to be, but there is a door at the back where you can walk from one to the other. Both the brewery and the tasting room and taqueria, and Leña Brava, have upstairs seating as well as main floor seating. The décor in both of them is like two completely different entities. (Cruz Blanca) is a tasting room, it's not a brewpub, that has a little taqueria stuck at the back of it. (The tasting room) is quite small; brewing equipment takes up about two-thirds of the space, and then this tiny little kitchen for this little taqueria and there's seating for about 45 people on the main floor. Above it is a larger room that could be open for regular service or a private event.
Why did you say a taqueria "of sorts" in the announcement?
Because this is a Oaxaca-style thing where you get meat, grill-roasted peppers and grill-roasted onions on a tray with some salsa and some tortillas and you make it yourself. You only order your meat and they just cut it up for you and then you make tacos out of it. The taco corridor in Oaxaca City is one of the most remarkable meals of my life—I go there at least two times a year.
How many beers will you have on tap in the tasting room?
You can't brew in a place until you get all of your licensing done and if we waited until then to start brewing we wouldn't be able to open in the middle of summer. We want to open sometime in the middle of May if all the licensing goes right so Jacob Sembrano, our brewer, has been doing what they call "gypsy brewing" and he's gone to four or five different breweries to brew our beer which they'll sell to us to fill our tanks to start with. What we consider our signature beers are all finished now, and there are so many different beers we're involved in producing right now.
How upscale will the service, atmosphere and price point be at Leña Brava?
It will be a very welcoming restaurant. Fish is a little bit more expensive so it'll probably be a little bit more than Frontera but not high-end fine dining like we do at Topolobampo.