The West Loop space formerly filled by Yugen and, before that, Grace has a new occupant. But Aikana Chicago, with food inspired by Latin America, from Mexico to Patagonia, will, its owners insist, be completely unlike its predecessors — or, in fact, anything else that’s ever been seen in Chicago before. The restaurant opens tonight.
“It will be a brand of its own,” says co-owner Morgan Olszewski, who was previously brought on as the general manager of Yugen by her father, owner Michael Olszewski. “It cannot be compared to anything.”
Raul Carmona, the other co-owner, worked with chef Alexander Quintero on the menu. Carmona is from Puerto Rico, Quintero is from Colombia, and both previously lived in Costa Rica. They took the ingredients they liked most from various countries in Central and South America and combined them into new dishes, for instance, a pork shank marinated in Colombian spices and cooked like chifrijo, a Costa Rican pork and bean stew, or octopus cooked with Peruvian leche de tigre and garnished with serrano peppers from Mexico.
The bar, run by mixologist Benjamin Schiller, similarly incorporates the flavors of Latin America. Chicago, Carmona says, is a city that likes its Old Fashioneds and vanilla, caramel, and and oaky flavors in its cocktails. Aikana’s bar, however, will use lots of rum and mezcal, with citrus flavors and garnishes, and guava and starfruit syrup for sweetness.
But if the influence of one country dominates, it’s Brazil. The name of the restaurant, Aikana, comes from an Indigenous people who live in southwest Brazil, near the Bolivian border. “They’re known for being resilient and brave, a warrior tribe,” says Carmona. He describes the decor as “jungle meeting Versace,” meaning a lot of deep green upholstery, prints, and plants with gold accents.
The dining room will seat 98 people, with room for 25 more at the bar. Late at night, Aikana will transform into a cocktail lounge, open till 2 a.m. with an abbreviated menu of bar snacks.
“Anyone who has seen the previous entities would not recognize the space,” says Olszewski. “It’s a fantastic space to call home.”
Aikana Chicago, 652 W. Randolph Street, Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday, Reservations via OpenTable.