Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, opening next week in Bucktown, sprung from the Chinese meals cooks Tom Scodari and Aaron Kabot made for coworkers at Giant, an acclaimed restaurant in Logan Square. Giant chefs Jason Vincent and Ben Lustbader were so impressed that they asked the duo to partner on their next restaurant, which debuts Wednesday at 2165 N. Western Avenue.
Vincent (a James Beard Award nominee), Lustbader, and partner Josh Perlman have shared their warm memories growing up near Cleveland and eating Chinese-American food with family. Scodari and Kabot also have those recollections. They don’t feel they’re ambassadors of Chinese culture. They’re passionate about learning about new ingredients and expanding their culinary knowledge.
From fried crab rangoon, to fresh stir-fried vegetables, to the mala of Sichuan items, the Chinese-American food that Scodari grew up with outside of Philadelphia always scratched the itch. He likens it to an everyday Thanksgiving feast, piling his plate with different items. Kabot grew up near suburban Highland Park and Highwood: “Chinese food has always been appropriate for the occasion,” he said.
Chef’s Special’s menu includes a happy hour offering where customers can pick two from a list of six food items and drinks for $10. For example, select an egg roll with a gin and tonic. A late-night menu kicks in after 11 p.m. with the kitchen staying open until 1 a.m. Red Hot Ranch, the popular late-night hot dog stand across the street, now has competition.
The main menu is divided like a traditional Chinese-American one into chicken; pork and beef; seafood, fried rice and lo mein; and vegetables and tofu sections. Those are homages to old favorites. But what sets Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar apart from other Chinese restaurants are, well, the chef’s specials. There are six options, including dan dan noodles; clams & pork belly; and oxtail & scallop chow fun. These are more modern dishes, and Kabot wants the items to rotate seasonally. Chef’s specials are meant to give diners something new, as opposed to standbys like sweet and sour chicken, kung pao beef, and fried rice.
Kabot talked about the need to keep the restaurant accessible. They don’t want to tell people how to enjoy their food. Customers are welcome to use their hands, silverware, or chopsticks. Feigning expertise has been a problem in the past for white owners of Asian restaurants, such as that infamous Bon Appétit pho video from 2016.
But the thoughtful team from Giant is taking fresh approach. The first item under the chef’s special section is a dish Scodari and Kabot made for staff at Giant. The tofu skin salad is made with tofu from Phoenix Bean, the Chicago company that supplies soy products to restaurants around the city; it’s also popular at farmer’s markets during the summer.
Phoenix Bean doesn’t make a lot of tofu skin, which is skimmed off the top while making tofu. The company reserves a portion of its supply for Chef’s Special. The texture resembles chicken skin which Kabot said allows it be prepped to taste like chicken skin too.
The chefs first made this salad warm, but then settled on cold. They feel the taste makes it an ideal complement to any of the dishes on the menu. The first version also included asparagus, as it was first made in the spring. Like Giant, Chef’s Special Cocktail bar will lean heavy into seasonally available ingredients.
The restaurant isn’t specializing in a region of China. The first Chinese restaurants in America served Cantonese and Mandarin food, reflective of the country’s first U.S. immigrants. The restaurant will serve those items, but will also offer a blend of other tastes. Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar ordered 20 pounds of Sichuan peppercorns for its opening week, for example.
Stay tuned for a walk through the space. Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar is one of Chicago’s biggest restaurant openings in 2020. Take a look at the menu below.