Aigre Doux Restaurant & Bakery
230 W. Kinzie, 312-329-9400
On the Saturday ten days after its mid-January opening, Aigre Doux turned its tables over more than twice, with walk-ins ending up in the still unfinished bakery. Given the preopening buzz about this elegant contemporary American place and its chefs–Mohammad Islam and Malika Ameen, veterans of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and New York’s Jean Georges and Balthazar–that might not be so surprising. But once you hear their story, the line at the door seems pretty fairy-tale.
When he left his native Bangladesh to attend college in 1985–first McGill University in Montreal, then the University of Illinois at Chicago–Islam, now 42, meant to study electrical engineering, not cooking. But he’d always been interested in food; though he never cooked in Bangladesh, his family traveled a lot and dined out widely. At UIC he became obsessed with cooking, hosting dinner parties and preparing meals for friends. Around the same time he realized he didn’t have the drive to be an engineer. “The other students were very talented,” he says. “They studied 24-7. That’s the way I cook, 24-7.”
So Islam dropped out and headed west, living in Missoula, Montana, for a couple years, fly-fishing and trying to figure out a course for his life. “I had to ask myself, ‘What do I want to wake up to in the morning?'” he says. “The answer was, ‘Peeling carrots and onions.'” He helped a friend open up a wine store and deli, then moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he opened a Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurant with another friend.
When he’d absorbed what the chefs at the Boulder restaurant could teach him, he decided to try to take his cooking to another level. While in college he’d met Ambria chef Gabino Sotelino, then at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba. Islam had walked in and asked for a waiter’s job. Sotelino laughed–Islam wasn’t even 21–but offered him a spot busing tables, and over time the two became friends. Islam called on Sotelino for help now, and Sotelino came through, helping him snag a job as a line cook under Sarah Stegner at the Ritz-Carlton despite his lack of formal culinary training.
“What I learned at the Ritz was discipline,” Islam says. It was also at the Ritz that he first caught sight of Ameen, a Glencoe native who’d graduated from the French Culinary Institute and was working at the restaurant as a pastry chef. “I had a real crush on her because she was so good-looking and my heart melted,” Islam says. “I was like, ‘Oh, gorgeous lady.'”
But in 1998, shortly after becoming smitten, Islam was hired by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and moved to New York City to work at Jean Georges and Mercer Kitchen. “Luckily a year later she called me and said, ‘I am here,'” he says. “I said, ‘You are here where?’ ‘I’m a chef at Balthazar bakery.'” From then on, Islam says, “I was really insistent. I’d call her every day and say, ‘How about a cup of coffee or tea?'”
“It was awful,” says Ameen, who’s now 32. “My mom was there with me and I had just broken up with someone and she was so concerned about me. She’d say, ‘Why is he calling? Who is this person?'”
Persistence paid off: the couple married in 2001 and now have two boys, ages two and four. In 2002 they moved to LA to run the restaurant at the celebrity-ridden Chateau Marmont. Los Angeles Times critic S. Irene Virbila compared Islam’s sensibility there to that of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and in fact Waters is also a friend of Islam’s–they met years ago at a benefit.
Her influence shows at the new restaurant as well, which offers fresh, well-executed contemporary American food like rack of lamb with truffled grits and fennel and a braised artichoke soup with Nantucket Bay scallops. While planning Aigre Doux last year, Islam and Ameen were a regular presence at the Green City Market–they recently bought 150 pounds of black walnuts from a vendor there. But though they’re sourcing some of their menu from local producers, they often have to look farther afield–the dates they use, for example, are shipped direct from California. “UPS ground is my best friend now,” Islam says.
A French culinary term meaning “sour and sweet,” the name Aigre Doux alludes to the restaurant’s division of labor: Islam does the aigre, Ameen the doux. But Ameen says the name also signifies “marriage and the life together. It’s a very personal thing.” If you were to ask other chefs about working with a spouse, Islam says, “90 percent would say that’d be terrible. But I’d say so far it has been wonderful. It’s really nice to see my kids running around and my wife cooking, and vice versa for her.”
The couple describes the restaurant as being simply about the “ritual of eating well.” But that doesn’t mean elitist or exclusive: the restaurant’s bakery, scheduled to open later this month, will have kid- and family-friendly lunch options like daily soups, paninis, and savory strudels.
On Valentine’s Day Aigre Doux will offer a $95 three-course tasting menu featuring a champagne toast, a duo of butternut squash and mushroom ragouts, Nantucket Bay scallops, prime rib, roast lobster, and chocolate crepes with candied ginger ice cream and a sour cherry jus. At the restaurant’s bar Ameen will offer a three-course dessert tasting with champagne for $35; the sweets include a warm chocolate truffle tart and a white chocolate-passion fruit ice cream sandwich duo. But the everyday menu is almost as sexy: Ameen’s sticky toffee pudding with candied kumquats and Devonshire cream ice cream is so shamelessly seductive it might as well have a slit up the side. –Nicholas Day
For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.