The team behind lavish dining and drinking spots Beatnik, Michelin-starred Porto, and Mama Delia will debut their latest tomorrow in Chicago’s restaurant-laden West Loop. Bambola is a continent-traversing restaurant — conceived as a creative culinary tribute to the Silk Road and the countries along the path.
Bohomme Hospitality’s newest is a twin concept along Randolph Restaurant Row. French spot, Coquette, will open later this year at 1400 W. Randolph Street. Developers razed the building that housed Michael Jordan’s OneSixtyBlue and later Bill Kim’s BellyQ to make room for the new project.
“Over the last year and a half, we’ve been looking at the ingredients, flavors, compositions, and cooking equipment as a giant database to teach ourselves new lessons in culinary history,” Bonhomme founder Daniel Alonso says. “We’re not trying to make chicken parmesan a la Iran — we’re trying to create unique dishes that respect the historical context of those countries with access to ingredients they didn’t have. We can step into that space with something modern, which is the coolest part of the world we live in.”
Silk Road cuisine is a broad concept that differs depending on geography. For example, in China, it would refer to Northern Chinese cuisine, utilizing ingredients — like pickles, cherries, grapes, and almonds — that travelers procured. In Chicago, a Chinese American fast-food restaurant called Silk Road has for years served lunch in the Loop.
From the second century BCE until the mid-15th century, the Silk Road was a 4,000-mile web of trade routes connecting East and Southeast Asia to Europe through empires in Turkey, Iran, and India. The decentralized network of land and sea routes played a key role in fostering economic relationships between continents as well as a cross-pollination among religious, artistic, and culinary influences. Alonso researched the Silk Road and its long-term impact, though his reimagining of the trek will be far more romantic than the reality — travelers of the era faced near-constant threats of raiders, rough terrain, and rampant disease like the bubonic plague.
For Bombola, executive chef and new father Marcos Campos and chef de cuisine Alisha Elenz (Mfk) created a menu primarily organized around ingredients rather than geography. A section labeled “Rivers and Seas” includes highlights such as lobster spaghetti with coconut curry cream (it’ll be finished tableside with a cognac flambé in a parmesan wheel) and banana leaf branzino with fried rice, sweet chili sauce, pickled mung beans, and steamed Hua Juan pancakes. “Pastures and Courtyards” features fire-roasted Turkish pork dumplings with charred corn labneh and lemongrass jus, while “Fields and Gardens” offers wok-fried risotto with eggplant mualle and pomegranate molasses.
“A concept like this is a dangerous concept,” Alonso says. “You can go after it with the biggest heart, but if you don’t handle it well, it can feel like a Disney World food court. That’s the last thing we want and the last thing diners want. These civilizations have been sharing amongst themselves for thousands of years and laid the groundwork for us to push our curiosity and passion.”
Alonso has channeled his interest in glamorous international travel into the menus and designs of nine Chicago restaurants. Bonhomme fans are accustomed to beautiful decors where they don’t sacrifice aesthetics for delicious food prepared with care that often uses imported and rare ingredients. At Porto, for example, fish is flown in from Spain and cooked precisely on a smoky grill.
After years of reading and the completion of a new hotel over the summer in Spain, Alonso is shifting his focus from destinations to the experience of the voyage itself. Given the Kafkaesque chaos subsuming the airline industry in the U.S., even the most wanderlust-stricken Chicagoans would be forgiven for delaying travel plans.
As the hospitality group’s ringmaster, Alonso also has a heavy hand in the group’s in-house design firm, Maison Bonhomme. He’s sourced antiques — including a 300-year-old Chinese courtyard house — alongside modern elements like cement tile imported from Marrakesh to craft an aesthetic he dubs “ancient-future” throughout the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Though Bambola will share an address with Coquette, set to open later in the fall, it will have a separate entrance and entirely distinct identity.
“I’ve started to become interested in journeys,” Alonso says. “I tend to fancy myself as a clothing designer or filmmaker — I have a point of view as a storyteller... My medium is restaurants and hospitality, so I translate all of those experiences through music, beverages, scents, and fixtures to show our unique perspective.”
Chicagoans will get to explore Alonso’s research starting this week.