Partners and “best friends” Jason Lerner and Alvaro Chavez came together as, respectively, the former general manager and chef of two restaurant siblings in Glenview: a build-your-own-pasta joint and a southwestern spot with an extensive tequila list. Bringing a concept very similar to the latter to a stretch of Diversey in Logan Square that’s as yet uncolonized by new restaurants the way Milwaukee Avenue is to the south seems like a prescient thing to do at the moment.
Here’s why: The city doesn’t have any shortage of Mexican spots with deep tequila lists. But none are on that block. For newcomers leery of the neighboring Ecuadoran joint and a couple of perfectly decent taquerias it seems like a welcome addition. And on the surface Chavez’s menu appears to be a more cosmopolitan reimagining of the suburban Depot Nuevo—how can you not be intrigued by coffee-and-black-pepper-dredged tenderloin with an epazote reduction? More on that later.
Most of all, the restaurant seems more focused on its tequila and mezcal program—driven by Lerner—than it is on the food. Asking Lerner about one of the 80-some tequilas and mezcals is to unleash an agave evangelist, and it’s fun to listen to someone so passionately articulate on the subject. I got him going on a couple of rare Chihuahuan sotols distilled from the Desert Spoon plant, and in ten minutes I found myself plenty informed, geared to learn more, and anxious to try the additional smaller-batch brands he’s trying to bring in.
Any one of his spirits is applicable to concoctions on the cocktail list devised by Jenny Kessler, which features a surprisingly dry Latin manhattan poured with six-to-nine-month-old reposado and amaro, and a few cocktails whose powerful sweetness is tempered nicely by more savory ingredients. I had trouble figuring out less nuanced drinks such as the Snake Bite, a blanco tequila, mango, mint, lime, jalapeño, and pepper-and-salt potion with little depth and so many elements they canceled each other out. But still, it seems this is a cocktail program that won’t remain static: a newer eucalyptus-pear “‘rita” made with Del Maguey Minero mezcal had a mentholated nose and a ginger bite that made a really complex and wonderful, if sweet, tipple.
As for Chavez, a former disciple of suburban restaurateur Carlos Nieto, he shows a certain economy, duplicating sides or garnishes (broccoli, baby carrots, blue corn chips) on a number of dishes and offering some preparations as both appetizers and entrees—though it might take you a few moments to decode that through the eyeball-scrambling menu font.
Three of his appetizers appear in an entree combo, the Three Amigos: Anaheim peppers overstuffed with a scarfable black bean-corn relish (comes with the Caesar salad too), roasted quail packed with corn bread, and a duck tamale with a woeful interior of fowl. A chipotle-seared scallop entree comes with green beans and a potato cake in poblano-blue cheese sauce, but its starter version is paired with a wonderfully moist piece of blue corn bread studded with kernels—both elements perfectly executed and perfectly ruined by an injudicious application of synthetic-smelling white truffle oil.
But judging from the yellow corn bread that came with sliced mesquite duck breast, this could be Chavez’s signature. I’d eat it either for dessert or breakfast anytime (and that’s not a slight on the coarse, creamy tres leches cake or the powerfully spicy chipotle triple chocolate cake).
Naturally, tequila gets incorporated into some dishes as well: in a blanco-dosed shrimp and scallop ceviche, and in the pineapple chutney on the duck breast. And quite a few of these French-influenced southwestern plates emerge from the kitchen with tall sprigs of herbs plunged into them or other vertical presentations, as in a simple clutch of deep-fried artichoke hearts piled into a fried Parmesan cup, oddly set into some spinach lining a blue corn chip bowl. That’s a lot of architectural support for a relatively simple bite, but another seemingly overdressed appetizer—shrimp and chorizo set in puff pastry and drizzled in lime beurre blanc—is rich and meaty, all parts contributing to the whole. It seems the menu is filled with dishes of such contrasting degrees of success: a ruby trout fillet with a simple mango salsa was aggressively unseasoned for a piece of fish smeared with chile. But those aforementioned coffee-and-epazote-seasoned beef medallions have a muted bitterness unmitigated by acid or sweetness that could be controversial at a lot of tables. I thought it was great. My pal hated it. Which in fact seems to be the way much of the world breaks down around tequila. If Lerner can just get the attention of the fans, he shouldn’t have much trouble keeping them coming back.