For Chicago-area native Max Robbins, the cuisine from Napa Valley is difficult to define.
To grounded Midwesterners, wine may be instantly associated with fine dining and Napa surely has fancy cuisine served at staples like the French Laundry. But those who haven’t visited may not know that Napa and its surrounding areas offer variety. Gott’s Roadside is ideal for an old-fashioned burger or, more relevant for Robbins, there’s Mustards Grill, where local winemakers flock to for comfort food.
“It was come-as-you-are,” Robbins says after making a visit to Napa. “You’d see folks in flip-flops enjoying $1,000 bottles of wine.”
That’s the type of feeling Robbins and Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises want to evoke with Oakville Grill & Cellar, their new Fulton Market restaurant opening Monday at 167 Green Street inside a new building with private event space. Before the building officially opened, Justin Bieber and Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine shot a promotional video from the basketball court on the 17th floor. It’s already become a legendary space among Chicagoans in the know.
While Robbins, who comes from Land & Sea Dept., a restaurant company with a roster of hip restaurants like Longman & Eagle and Parson’s Chicken & Fish, the Oakville isn’t just about a culture of cool. LEYE and wine director Richard Hanauer (also an LEYE partner with the RPM division) want to give Chicago an escape, to make them feel like they’ve left the Midwest — especially during frosty winters. LEYE co-founder Richard Melman is famous for creating restaurants that cater to a wide swath of customers, and the Oakville follows that tradition. There will be a tasting menu to pair with a winery of the month, allowing Chicagoans to pretend they’re in a winery and perhaps even make the dubious choice to join a wine club. Robbins likens what his team is creating to a “guest-driven restaurant” as opposed to a “chef-driven restaurant.”
This approach comes across on the menu in options like salmon, which Robbins admits isn’t the sexiest seafood selection but is always popular. At Oakville, the coal-roasted Faroe Island salmon is glazed with a smoky barbecue sauce and served with grits made with a 26-month-old gouda. It’s ramp season, folks, so they’re grilling and then tossing the Midwest’s favorite spring-foraged vegetable into the grits. Robbins and his team aren’t trying to manipulate the main ingredients too much. Artichokes from California are served with olive oil and pepperoncini aioli. There’s also a fried chicken with a bottle of pepper vinegar.
The team will also offer a variety of snacks like charcuterie for wine drinkers to enjoy during tastings. Country ham will be one of the selections, an item that Robbins believes doesn’t get enough attention and should be mentioned in the same echelon as prosciutto and other fine cured meats.
Star pastry chef Clair Smyth (Honey’s) has resurfaced at Oakville with a peanut butter pie with caramel ganache and chocolate cookie crust. Another interesting option is a tropical banana split with sweet cream ice cream, passionfruit sorbet, and caramelized bananas.
Expect a rustic Northern California feel inside a breezy restaurant with plenty of greenery. In 2013, Lettuce opened Summer House Santa Monica, inspired by Southern California. Now it’s time to tackle Northern California. Check back for a look inside the restaurant next week.
Oakville Grill & Cellar, 167 Green Street, officially opens Monday, April 24.