The owner of Turquoise in Roscoe Village, one of Chicago’s most popular Turkish restaurants, is trying something new in Wicker Park. The city has a variety of Mediterranean restaurants, but the team behind Elia feels theirs is genuinely unique — a modern space with a bar and a fusion menu.
To understand what Elia is vying to accomplish, it’s nice to have a basic understanding of what “Mediterranean” has come to mean in describing food around town: a clumsy term that refers to several nations without any clarity. Spain and France border the Mediterranean Sea but are rarely lumped in with countries like Monaco, Turkey, and Cypress, which share some culinary traditions.
With that in mind, Elia’s chef, Ezgi Bozdas, describes her offerings as fusion, combining food from different countries along the Mediterranean Sea. Bozdas arrived in America in 2008, moving to Chicago in the dead of winter from Turkey as a 19-year-old college kid studying computer science. She didn’t have a winter coat.
Her first restaurant job was washing dishes at Cousins IV, a raw foods restaurant that has since closed. The experience of working extensively with vegetables will give Elia an edge, Bozdas says. Turquoise’s menu is meat heavy, as is Cafe Istanbul, a restaurant just west of Elia, also on Division Street. Coincidentally, Cafe Istanbul’s owner, Mustafa Guler, founded Turquoise before selling to Metin Serbest in 2017.
“I don’t necessarily want to be in competition,” Serbest says of Elia,” I think we have enough customers for everyone.”
Guler set high standards for Turqoise, and Bozdas looked forward to the challenge. However, at Elia, she has more freedom to express herself without being weighed down by customer expectations. And those expectations were not always fair, Bozdas says who has worked at acclaimed spots like Carrie Nahabedian’s NAHA and Danny Grant’s Maple & Ash; “I’ve worked very hard as a female from Turkey,” Bozdas adds.
Bozdas talks about how many, mostly men, underestimated her abilities. She’s now in charge of Turquoise and its sibling wine bar, Bordeaux Lounge, and Elia. She relishes how far she’s come from her start as a dishwasher.
The menu features four types of hummus, saganaki, and a hulking braised short rib. Seafood and veggie risottos show the restaurant’s melange of dishes.
The bar element remains in the restaurant, but take a look at where the DJ booth — a stack of high chairs stands in its place. That’s the direction this restaurant is going, Serbest is Kursh who emigrated from Turkey. He’s an immigration attorney with a growing practice specializing in clients seeking asylum in America — Syrians, Iraqis, and Iranians. He studied at Northwestern University.
They’re still figuring out what the neighborhood wants, as Elia sports a large bar with a modern private dining room. Serbest says the decor fits in with the rest of Wicker Park. He’s tried other restaurants in the space, most recently Sea & Olive. Though he’s adamant the pricing and the pandemic stopped that restaurant from success, he’s also reluctant to talk about the old restaurant, dubious of mentioning failures. They went bigger with Elia, gutting the space and hiring Berrin Ulutas as the designer and architect.
“I put a lot of money in — it’s like gambling, right?,” Serbest says. “You lose a lot of money and you’re like “I got to make it back! Then you put more money in to get it.”
Elia, 1938 W. Division Street, open 5 p.m. daily; kitchen open until 10 p.m. on weekdays and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; the bar is still open after. Lunch, happy hour, and brunch starting soon, reservations via OpenTable.