Combining the concept of a French dip sandwich with a Vietnamese banh mi (subbing the au jus for pho) is something that should have arrived at Chicago restaurants a long time ago. It’s a unique item that’s seen in places like Honolulu and something Chicago has lacked. Chef Miles Schaefer will fill that void and bring the item downtown when 90th Meridian Kitchen & Bar opens later in July inside the Central Standard Building at 231 S. LaSalle Street.
Schaefer, who’s worked at restaurants including Big Star in Wicker Park and Eden on the Near West Side, wants to give customers in the Finance District more than traditional pub food. Co-workers can still dig into a plate of nachos together, but this plate will be topped with spicy vindaloo pork. A hanger steak salad will use a Korean kalbi-style marinade. Schaefer said his food tends to be bright and acidic and that he likes to uses herbs. He wants to wake up sleepy tastebuds. Management described the menu as full of Southern California-style flavors.
Then there’s that banh mi French dip. It’s a dish that chef Andrew Le serves at The Pig and the Lady and Piggy Smalls in Honolulu; the restaurant predates Jimmy Bannos Jr.’s similarly named Chicago restaurant. Le and Schaefer worked together in San Francisco and are close friends. Schafer may not be using Le’s family’s pho recipe at his restaurant, but the Chicago chef said he’ll take the time to slowly simmer the broth over a few days.
90th Meridian is from the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, the company that includes Steadfast in the Loop, Roots Handmade Pizza in West Town and Lincoln Square, and Portsmith in River North. The new restaurant should open in mid-July. It’s a 164-seater with a 21-seat granite U-shaped bar. 90th Meridian’s offerings will get an assist from Fifty/50’s West Town Bakery which will supply the breads for the banh mi and more.
The bar’s drinks include six beers on tap and eight specialty cocktails. The spot is supposed to be happy hour friendly and beverages include the “Wingfoot Air Express” (rye, ruby port, cynar, egg white, lemon) & the “Estándar Central” (blanco tequila, Apologue Aronia, cilantro shrub, lime, watermelon).
Opening a downtown restaurant can be rough, and it’s easy to slip into complacency with weekday customers and the lunch rush. Schaefer wants to avoid that by putting serious effort into prep. Besides the pho, the kitchen will make ricotta for a French onion-style dip, using the cheese instead of sour cream.
“I really like to tinker with the food, but I don’t want cliches — the things you can get at any old place,” Schaefer said.