A lot has changed for the lobby restaurant space inside the former Ace Hotel, across the street from Google’s Chicago headquarters. Now known as the Emily Hotel, the property last week debuted Fulton Market’s newest restaurant: Fora.
The space feels warmer than before with the 4,500 square-foot space setting the stage for an eclectic and seafood-forward seasonal menu marrying Mexican flavors with Japanese and French techniques. It’s a completely different experience compared to City Mouse, the previous tenant developed by James Beard Award nominee Jason Vincent (Giant): “Mars vs. Pluto: two different planets,” says chef Billy Caruso (Rye Deli + Drink).
City Mouse closed in October 2020 due to the pandemic, 15 months before the Ace left the Chicago market. The Emily needed someone to oversee its food and beverage. Enter Caruso, who defected from Rye, the modern Jewish-inspired deli in the West Loop and a 2021 Eater Chicago Award winner. His official title is director of food and beverage for Onni Group, the Emily’s parent company.
Fora is a counterpoint to Selva, a separate space on the seventh floor that rounds out the hotel’s offering with a corn-centric menu featuring a few of Mexico’s favorite night-time street-food bites. As a hotel restaurant, Fora is an all-day affair, or will be once staffing levels rise.
While Caruso earned rave reviews at Rye, a short distance away at the Crowne Park West Loop, at Fora he hands off the keys to a family Chicago name: Matt Danko (Grace, Sink|Swim, Trentina, Greenhouse Tavern). Danko’s menu centers on popular south-of-the-border dishes like ceviches and aguachiles, along with lesser-known favorites like tetelas.
The midwestern chef speaks with excitement about the opportunity to lend a voice to dishes conjured in a different mother tongue and approaches the challenge humbly. “The food is inspired by Mexican culture, its techniques, and methods, and this is an interpretation from my perspective,” says Danko.
The opening menu features a take on ceviche that brings hamachi forward with pomelo, avocado, and yuzu kosho (a fermented spicy and acidic paste made with chiles and yuzu). The fragrant hoja santa, a leaf found in many Mexican dishes, is also used. There’s also a riff on an aguachile mixing kanpachi, smoked beets and the delicately lemon-like flavored butterfly sorrel. It’s not acidic like the traditional preparation.
Also on the menu is a carne apache tostada, a version of the Michoacano dish prepared with raw meat using the ceviche approach in which the fish is “cooked” with citrus. It’s kind of the answer to tartare. The plate is served on a crispy, lightly fried tortilla sprinkled with sesame seeds and a side of magic oil. The combination of ingredients brings wood-grilled hints to a raw dish. The “magic oil,” a take on the Veracruzan spicy and nutty salsa macha, adds dimension to the flavor combination with a fermented twist.
The bone marrow contrasts its rich flavors with the deep heat and acid of a fruity chile pasilla glaze and a Yucatecan-style curtido (pickled purple onions). The blue hand-made tortillas beg to be enjoyed quickly to preserve their pliability. Fora is making a big deal out of its tortilla service, which comes out with recado negro butter (the backbone of the Yucatán Península’s Mayan cuisine, recado negro is prepared with ashes of smoked chiles and spices). A variety of tortillas arrive made with heirloom corn, there’s one made with pink corn. The restaurant tracked down a crafter on Etsy from Mexico who makes tortilleros, or woven pouches for keeping tortillas warm. They purchased more than a hundred pouches, buying her out.
Other small bites, including a raw, crisp salad highlighting chayotes, a Mexican staple since pre-Columbian times, and the Oaxacan tetelas, a corn masa delicacy stuffed with squash and goat cheese, are also available.
The team at Fora puts a heavy emphasis on the freshness and quality of their ingredients, some of which are grown on their rooftop, behind the giant screen where the Emily is showing outdoor movies. The team is looking forward to fall, says Caruso.
Caruso, who at Rye took the idea of the Jewish deli and — as a non-Jew — created a thoughtful menu that pushed boundaries without trampling on tradition (for example, his matzo ball soup made with blue corn), continues that thoughtfulness at Fora. There, Mexicans may find a poetic symbol of validation in the garden in the form of a type of dahlia, Mexico’s national flower.
For now Fora will be open for lunch and dinner due to staffing challenges. But at Fora, Caruso and Danko are aiming to push Mexican food in a new direction, putting their restaurant in the same categories as Rick Bayless and Carlos Gaytán. From his own experience, Caruso brings to Fora “a never say die mentality, and expressive, flavorful food that highlights thousands of years of culture.”
A Mexican seafood trend seems to be emerging with Fora and nearby at the Soho House with Sueños. Paul Kahan’s One Off Hospitality is also investing in mariscos with its latest iteration of Big Star. Caruso still feels Fora is a different.
“What makes us different is our staff, so many talented people with various past experiences helping shape this restaurant,” he says.