Valentine’s Day may be months away, but chef Norman Fenton isn’t waiting for the February glut of red, heart-shaped cards to proclaim his love. The Detroit-bred Fenton — known for his work at rebellious tasting menu restaurants Schwa and Brass Heart — now calls his own shots at Cariño, a love letter to his family and their experiences in Latin America.
Cariño is set to debut on Thursday, December 28 in a space Fenton is very familiar with, the former home of Brass Heart at 4662 N. Broadway in Uptown. Fenton took over the kitchen in 2020, but pondered how he would transform the restaurant if he owned it. He now gets his opportunity thanks to co-owner Karen Young, a British Lebanese former music festival producer and entrepreneur whom Fenton met while working at Wild Tulum in Mexico. Fenton also met his wife in Mexico and in recent years has split his time between Chicago and Tulum. Fenton is quick to reiterate that Cariño shouldn’t be labeled as traditional Latin American dining.
“We’re aiming to be completely different than any other concept in Chicago,” Fenton writes.
Though Cariño bears little resemblance to its predecessor or Michelin-starred Schwa, he intends to tap into an ethos he absorbed in previous positions.
“We’re not Schwa or Brass Heart at all really, but what I can personally say is what I learned from Michael Carlson at Schwa is it’s about still having fun with the guest experience and your staff,” Fenton writes. “We’re also bringing a much bigger personality and energy to the space itself while still providing a more cozy, comfortable feeling... without sacrificing a high-caliber dining experience. We want to show them that it can still feel like home.”
Cariño seeks to strike a delicate balance between ease (patrons can wear shorts if they’d like) and culinary ambition. Fenton will weave Central and South American influences — with special attention paid to Mexico — into a 12-to-16-course tasting menu ($190) that begins with aguachile (white soy-cured Ora King salmon, kanpachi, jalapeño and Serrano chili vapor). Other courses include ravioli made with huitlacoche and crispy fried corn silk, and a finale of coffee (a custom blend of Latin American beans) and fried churros that are coated in sherry sugar, topped with foie gras mousse, and plated atop Oaxacan mole negro and raisin puree. The dessert course is inspired by his Mexican in-laws’ tradition of after-dinner coffee and cookies.
In early 2024, once the team has gotten into the groove, Fenton will up the ante with a late-night lineup of eight to 12 tacos ($125) presented in the style of omakase. Those who can snag one of seven spots at the chef’s counter at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday will have a front-row seat for Fenton’s wildest taco interpretations. As in the case of traditional omakase, the chef has complete control over the ever-changing menu.
To Fenton, the appeal of such an approach is obvious. “I fucking love tacos, there’s nothing better,” he writes. “We wanted to give diners another outlet to experience our food without having to go all in on the tasting menu while providing a completely different experience in the same space... Tacos, to me, have just as much right to be in a fine dining restaurant.”
Cariño’s owners have tapped local talent to build an equally ambitious bar menu, selecting sommelier Richie Ribando (Next, Smyth) to shepherd a uniquely extensive selection of Latin wines and bartender Denisse Soto (Osito’s Tap) to design the cocktails. Soto’s signature perfectionism is on full display in drinks like mauve-hued Morada Sour, a riff on a pisco sour made with chicha morada, a Peruvian beverage of purple corn, apple, pineapple and orange peels, tamarind, and spices. Other submissions will include La Guacamaya (Mamey, coconut syrup, yellow lime, charanda anejo) and a truffle Manhattan made with Mexican whiskey and huitlacoche-infused Argentinian red vermouth that’s served tableside from a smoking decanter.
Young led the charge in redesigning Brass Heart’s spare, monochromatic dining room, transforming the 1,700-square-foot space with jewel-toned turquoise walls, textured terracotta pendant light fixtures, and art including textile wall hangings and a window pane mural from the Mochoacán. To keep the mood buoyant, there will be upbeat Latin music — think classics, modern pop hits, and reggaeton — and personal touches like a framed photo of Mexican rapper Santa Fe Klan and Funko Pop soccer players (culled from Fenton’s collection) tucked into corners of the open kitchen.
“We do hope to raise the bar for what this type of [Latin American-] inspired cuisine could be and help to put the appropriate value on Latin American dining since it has been less commonly represented in the fine dining scene,” Fenton writes.