Since April, former Intro Chicago executive chef Stephen Gillanders has gotten better acquainted with the 126-year-old building in Pilsen that will house S.K.Y. He projected a summer opening, but the building’s infrastructure didn’t cooperate and for the last six months his crew has been making repairs to appease city inspectors. But the 80-seat space is done, the menu’s been finalized, and Gillanders has an opening date. S.K.Y. will open on Nov. 17 at 1239 W. 18th Street.
Gillanders is a disciple of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and aided the NY-based chef six years ago while opening latest incarnation of the The Pump Room in Gold Coast. He originally intended to open S.K.Y. in Los Angeles. The opportunity with Intro and to learn from Rich Melman at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises altered those plans. Gillanders worked as the only executive chef at LEYE’s rotating menu restaurant during its two years in Lincoln Park. It’s since closed.
S.K.Y. in Chicago will be a different restaurant compared to what Gillanders envisioned in Los Angeles. In LA, Gillanders said chefs cater too much to trends, which is difficult thanks to the city’s diversity of cultures. Many times, chefs focus too much on that instead of just making great food. In Chicago, chefs can be more honest. Diners are less likely to pitch a fit if they taste something different on the menu. Customers embrace the chance to try something unique.
“We’re going to make this restaurant more personal,” Gillanders said.
Gillanders is well traveled, visiting 16 countries in Asia. He aims to pay homage to those dishes he savored abroad at S.K.Y. For example, he’s serving a hamachi sashimi that reminds him of a dish in Tokyo. S.K.Y.’s version is served with ponzu and sesame seeds. The seeds replace that caviar accompaniment from Japan to make the dish more accessible. Gillanders slow simmers the sesame seeds and that gives them a pop making them a good replacement for caviar. He’s more about enhancing an ingredient rather than full-out manipulating it. Those unneeded actions are often only a move to prove to the customer that the item is worth the price on the menu, he said.
Another dish, a buttered Maine lobster dumpling with fermented chili sauce, is a take on a shrimp soup dumpling he had in Beijing. Gillanders would have stuck with shrimp but he’s already pleased with another shrimp dish he’s finalized. They’ll also have a six-course tasting menu. Five dishes will come from the standard menu. The sixth is special dish that will rotate. For the opening, they’ll try to confine the tasting menu to a four-seat chef’s table to test things out.
S.K.Y. (which stands for Gillander’s wife, Seon Kyung Yuk) is part of a changing stretch on 18th Street in Pilsen with restaurants including Dusek’s and Hai Sous. Gillanders is keen on the community’s Mexican roots, and just like his ingredients, he wants to enhance the neighborhood instead of overwhelming it. That’s something he learned while traveling to Japan. The Japanese have plenty of Japanese food, why would they want an outsider giving them something they’ve perfected?
“We’d be foolish to think we could make Mexican food better than the person down the street, so we’re just not doing it,” he said.
But at the same time, Gillanders is planning a tres leches-style cake with macerated peaches. It’s not a threat to the traditional tres leches served at places like Kristoffer's Cafe & Bakery at Halsted and 17th. It’s another homage forged by respect.
“I’m not going to say something is too delicious to not be on the menu,” Gillanders said.
At first, S.K.Y. will only be open for dinner. Gillanders does have weekday lunch and weekend brunch plans on the horizon. Come back for more as opening day gets closer.