A few weeks ago I called upon a well-known and outspoken chef for some expertise I needed for a story. But this chef wanted to talk about something else. The chef had just come from lunch at one of the celebrated new restaurants launched by a certain large and ever-spawning restaurant group, and before that dinner at a sprawling spinoff from another very prominent local group in town. “I hate what they’ve done to this industry!” raged the chef, referring to the forces behind the oft-anticipated Chicago restaurant bubble. “It’s gonna come down, and you know what? It’s all gonna come back to chefs opening their own little places on their own credit cards.”
I knew what this meant: deeply personal projects certain chefs launch because they’ve got a dream, and even if they’re short on deep-pocketed investors or don’t have the financial leverage of a sprawling multiconcept empire, they’re going to make it happen somehow.
My first thought goes back fondly to the late Bunny, Iliana Regan’s microbakery that didn’t last long thanks to landlord shenanigans. And then there was Snaggletooth, the Lakeview microdeli that barely lasted more than a year. The restaurant world is a place where dreams often go to die.
But it’s also a place where odd little dreams thrive. Snaggletooth’s Jennifer Kim just opened Passerotto, a Korean-Italian mashup in Andersonville that’s so weird it just might work. And then there’s Tempesta Market, Mi Tocaya, Steingold’s, Baker Miller, Cellar Door Provisions—concepts that dare you not to wish them the very best of luck in the choppy waters of the restaurant industry, concepts that make you realize how lucky we still are to live in Chicago.
Take Frunchroom, a place you’d call a hole-in-the-wall if it weren’t bright and cheerful and perched in Portage Park, the antithesis of a hot restaurant neighborhood. It’s a 27-seat counter-service cafe that incorporates elements of both Italian and Jewish deli traditions. Nearly everything on its surprisingly deep menu is made in-house by chef Matt Saccaro and his crew of four.
Saccaro is the former chef de cuisine at neighboring Community Tavern, who’s struck out on his own with that restaurant’s former owner, Quay Tao, to open Frunchroom. The name refers to the Chicagoese pronunciation of “front room”—meaning the entertaining area just off the entrance of the classic bungalow. Saccaro, who also clocked time at Anteprima and Autre Monde, has incorporated his family’s Italian and Jewish culinary influences on a menu of extraordinary ambition for a place only open for lunch and breakfast.
The latter features doughnuts and pastries and a handful of breakfast sandwiches, plus bagels from the Bagel Chef (one of the few items, along with the bread, made off the premises), with any of the cured fish, such as gravlax, oozing with salmon oil, just salty enough to be like cured sashimi; smoked salmon done pastrami style, with a crust of pepper and herbs; beautiful cured sardine fillets; and a shrimp terrine embedded with huge prawn chunks.
At lunch these transfigured sea creatures appear on boards accompanied by grilled sourdough, smooth quenelles of cream cheese, and a colorful smattering of vinegar pickles—capers, cukes, radishes, and cauliflower.
The same ornaments dress a selection of cured meats that emerge from the kitchen appropriately at room temperature, making the ribbon of fat on the duck-breast prosciutto quiver between solid and liquid, perfectly lubricated to carry the subtle flavors over the palate. Chicken liver mousse is rich, the liver bass note harmonizing beautifully with fat and acid and flakes of Maldon salt. Andalusian chorizo is spicy and funky, perfect with a pickled apricot and a few grains of stoneground mustard.
A handful of resolutely seasonal plates includes charred asparagus with strawberries and blue cheese in a balsamic reduction, a riot of flavors, gorgeously balanced. Matzo ball soup is more like a bowl of gravy or poultry demi-glace with Fresno peppers and parsley adorning the smoked thigh meat that hangs out among the kneidlach. These are a bit denser than bubbe’s, but it would feel churlish to complain, since the whole ensemble puts the recipe on the side of the Manischewitz box to shame.
Sandwiches form the core of Frunchroom’s menu and include some extraordinary takes on familiar standards. Ham and cheese on a long bun, griddled under pressure, oozes butterkase, with pickles and mustard inside, a stealthy Cuban Reuben. The BLT is simultaneously airy on brioche and saturated (faturated?) with butter, bacon fat, and basil aioli. Grilled cheese pushes that fat quotient even higher, leaving slicks of butter, raclette, and caramelized onions trailing down the chin. The requisite burger is also buttery, coarsely ground, cooked correctly, and just great.
Rotating rococo doughnuts like chocolate-pretzel, lemon-pistachio, and toasted almond-amaretto-dark chocolate share limited space at the front counter with other pastries like butterscotch-pecan pie and rosemary-pine nut shortbread, while tart cherry or caramel shakes with Zarlengo’s gelato—made by Saccaro’s wife’s family—emerge from the kitchen impossibly thickened.
Currently it seems like a number of Portage Park moms and their offspring have taken to Frunchroom’s limited real estate, but I predict long lines in its future as word gets out about Saccaro’s original, idiosyncratic vision for a neighborhood deli. v