Customers in Bucktown won’t find dragons or lanterns inside Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, the highly anticipated new Chinese-American restaurant that opens today. “That’s not what we’re about,” said chef/partner Aaron Kabot. He and his cohorts aren’t aping another culture like other Chicago restaurants. Instead, the restaurant’s design tries to mimic the feel of a family-owned establishment that’s been passed down from generations.
The design approach is like taking a space created in the ‘50s and layering it with “accents of the past,” said beverage director Chase Bracamontes. Yet things break and upgrades are needed, so they’ve added new shelving, lighting, and a modern sound system. Bracamontes said the space is meant to feel “cozy and comfortable.”
The back dining room has room for 12 to 20, and the chefs will create special family-style menus to make group gatherings easy. Each table will get a condiment caddy with sauces made in the kitchen. And, for the record, Chef’s Special will use MSG: “Hopefully people are over that,” said chef/partner Tom Scodari.
Chef’s Special is from the group behind Giant, an essential Chicago restaurant known for its creative and modern American cuisine. But Giant doesn’t have room for many bar seats, so the new Bucktown space — a former Cuban restaurant — has a wraparound bar as the centerpiece and owners wanted to preserve that classic dive bar feel. Folks would be comfortable downing a canned domestic beer and a shot of malört. While customers can reserve the back dining room, which is partially enclosed for privacy, and order family style dishes for special events, the bar provides a different experience. There, customers can grab a tea-infused cocktail and an egg roll stuffed with rock shrimp and pork. Food’s served until 1 a.m. It also offers happy hour specials and spirit-free drinks.
Tea is a big part of the menu, and servers will provide complementary black tea to customers. Tea is also in cocktails, as Bracamontes infuses mezcal with Lapsang Souchong for an extra smoky Negroni-like drink called “Energy Dome.” That’s a reference to Devo, the New Wave band that hit it big in the ‘80s with Whip It. Chefs will also use Rare Tea Cellar teas in desserts such as sesame cake.
The nostalgia for Chinese food wasn’t directly passed along by family, like in the case of Lao Peng You in West Town. The pot stickers at Chef’s Special are stuffed with pork and cabbage with wrappers made in the kitchen. The chefs likened their technique to folding a burrito.
Kabot and Scodari have worked with Jason Vincent since their time at Nightwood in Pilsen. They followed him to Logan Square where he opened Giant and earned a James Beard Award nomination. Vincent and Giant chef/partner Ben Lustbader are now placing Kabot, Scodari, and Bracamontes front and center at Chef’s Special. They’re eager to replicate classic Chinese-American dishes and to use some new tricks for more modern takes. For example, spareribs are cooked sous vide and come out similar to Cantonese char siu.
The Bucktown/Wicker Park area has a void for quality Chinese food. Folks are still waiting for Papajin to return (good luck with waiting; it’s been five years), though New China Station has recently delved into Sichuan cuisine.
Still, Chef’s Special not only fills a niche for Chinese-American food in the area, but it also gives locals a fun new bar with a late-night menu. Diners can check the space out in person starting tonight.
Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, 2165 N. Western Avenue, (773) 666-5143, open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily; late-night menu from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.; bar open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Monday through Sunday; until 3 a.m. on Saturday.