The wait for Esmé is almost over: Opening day is August 17 and reservations for the hotly anticipated restaurant from Next alum Jenner Tomaska go live Monday afternoon. Tomaska and wife Katrina Bravo want to give Lincoln Park a different type of fine dining restaurant, allying with local artists — including notable photographer Paul Octavious — in creating special collaborative meals.
For Chicago, tasting-menu restaurants have long held a formal vibe. There are exceptions, notably the punk-rock ethos of Schwa, and Elske’s comfortably casual dining room in the West Loop. Tomaska and Bravo hope to change that with Esmé’s 16-course tasting menu ($185 on Wednesday and Thursday; $200 from Friday through Sunday). Tomaska and Bravo recently welcomed their first child, and the pandemic further complicated that journey. Tomaska says nothing turned out the way they expected, but he promises the wait will be worth it.
Eventually, Tomaska says (perhaps in October), they’ll start regularly hosting those collaborative dinners, where they’ll exhibit an artist’s work in the restaurant; they also plan on donating a portion of sales to a charitable cause. Tomaska wants to establish the restaurant and wait two months or so before bringing collaborators onboard.
One dish that demonstrates Esmé’s spirit of collaboration is a salt-baked sable that arrives ash-black before servers slice it open tableside. The item is inspired by Aron Fischer, the artisan who made Esmé’s platters. The platters were stained with wood ash, and Tomaska attempted to mimic that technique and visual with the fish. The salt bake’s carbonized look comes from cherrywood ash, which also imparts a smoky flavor. Normally, chefs would stuff in aromatics like thyme or parsley. But Fischer got Tomaska’s imagination going: “We’re leaning on his creative process to let us be inspired,” the chef says.
Other dishes include pierogi (raclette, burnt onion consomme, truffle), grilled spot prawn (peach bisque; tapioca cooked in anise; Tarbais bean masa steamed in leeks; Michigan peach compressed in pimento and saffron), and caviar with sweet potato ice cream.
Tomaska admits that the fish looks dramatic and he’s serving it with a simple cream sauce. While Esmé’s food needs to have an edge and to look pretty, Tomaska maintains he’s letting ingredients shine.
Esmé beverage director Tia Barrett picked a Michael Lavelle Iris rosé for her 50-bottle wine list because it’s produced by four men of color from Chicago, made in California’s central coast and Paso Robles. The winemakers donate to the Roots Fund, which supports BIPOC wine professionals. The list also includes Ricochet Grüner Veltliner from Oregon, which gives back 5 percent of sales to nonprofit groups. Bravo and Tomaska say about 75 percent of their selections will be from winemakers who are women or BIPOC, or have some sort of philanthropic tie.
Like Tomaska, Barrett is from the suburbs. Her family immigrated from Jamaica and moved to Glenview: “My mission is to tell these stories, not just grapes, this story is one that anyone should want to tell their friends too,” she says.
That’s not to say classic wines from Italy or France won’t have a place at Esmé. Bravo says she wants the restaurant to serve as an example to others, reminding them that BIPOC winemakers or artists deserve the spotlight. She mentions the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests from last year, how that’s forced some restaurants to create new opportunities for the marginalized. But in the end, restaurant owners have to stop making excuses and force the issue: “We’re knuckleheads, as my mom says... sometimes it takes a couple of knuckleheads to get this done,” Bravo says.
The spirit of collaboration is a big part of Esmé, Bravo says. That ceramicist who made the platters? In Bravo’s eyes, he’s not a mere vendor — he’s one of Esmé’s “creative partners.” Bravo wants to develop relationships where partners cheer each other in person or by sharing content on social media. (Bravo’s background is in marketing with Alinea Group.) It helps build Esmé’s brand in front of a new group of followers. But it’s about making sure that those who don’t typically receive recognition do receive acknowledgement, Bravo says. It’s not like they’re shopping CB2 looking for plates, she adds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Bravo clarifies.
Tomaska says the restaurant’s space and surrounding are influencing his cooking. He wants Esmé to remain accessible. The restaurant isn’t about chasing Michelin stars or James Beard awards: “I never got a Michelin star at Next,” Tomaska says. “What does it really matter if it’s successful?”
While Michelin inspectors were reluctant to award Next stars until after Tomaska’s departure, he did learn a great deal from Dave Beran, the Next chef who left for LA to open his own restaurant. Tomaska believes storytelling is an integral part of a restaurant’s success (that’s an important note for Beran, too, as Tomaska notes his mentor’s place is called Dialogue). That’s a skill that Beran and another friend and mentor — Virtue’s Erick Williams — share. Tomaska also honed his skills in 2019 at Michelin-starred Elizabeth where he subbed in for Iliana Regan while she was opening Milkwood Inn in Michigan.
“It’s about more than spending a ton of money to sit in an expensive chair,” Tomaska says.