Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lifting the curse: Chef Kevin McMullen at the Brixton

Posted By on 05.29.14 at 01:30 PM

Kevin McMullen at The Brixton.

I had reason to stop by the Brixton and talk to Chef Kevin McMullen for something coming up in these pages/pixels—which you'll see in due course—but while I was there I chatted with him for a few minutes about the Andersonville bar-restaurant, which so far has succeeded in lifting what appeared to be a curse on its location.

The building, 5420 N. Clark, was home to the wine bar In Fine Spirits (see it in its old Key Ingredient video here) for a number of years, but then the owners reconcepted it as Premise under former Graham Elliot chef Brian Runge. Despite serving impressive and very interesting food, which might've have brought Andersonville a lot closer to Randolph Street and Logan Square than it has been before or since, Premise's fine dining feel was pretty much a mismatch with the space, which was unmistakably a bar, and it closed in only a few months.

Brasserie 54, an outpost of the LM Bistro group, followed but provoked little excitement. Meanwhile McMullen, who by then had left El Ideas, was working at Longman & Eagle and was set to be part of the team opening the same company's Dusek's. Then the space on Clark was taken over by Tim Casey and Ted Webler, who own the Drum and Monkey on Taylor Street.

"It's an industry bar," McMullen says of the Drum and Monkey, a hangout for restaurant workers after their shifts. "I've known Tim and Ted for about six years, and they asked me if I was interested in this space. It was pretty raw when we got here, but I loved it and I loved the neighborhood. Nine months later, here I am."

The irony about bringing in McMullen to help transform the space back into the neighborhood bar it was before Premise is that one of the guys he crossed paths with at Longman & Eagle was Brian Runge—not to mention that McMullen's background at El Ideas and working with Brandon Baltzley wasn't the likeliest prep for making the food people expect to find in a bar. But Longman's group has succeeded in squaring the circle that Premise didn't quite manage on its own—bringing modernism and more unusual ingredients to a comfortable bar atmosphere and making it all make sense together. I ask McMullen how he developed the bar's menu without making it too out there—or too conventional.

"There were a couple of different visions. Tim's idea was a superapproachable wine bar, where you could watch a Hawks game and not feel at all that you were in a snooty atmosphere, and Teddy echoed those thoughts," he said. "Though it's become more cocktail and beer focused since then. All we really wanted to do was be a neighborhood spot, and not overdo anything. People come in and they say, you're not going to do what Premise did, are you? And we say, no, there's going to be a cheeseburger on the menu, and they're like, thank God."

But Dusek's serves a cheeseburger and also manages to incorporate avant-garde-leaning food, too. And McMullen's first menu was a little more out there than it quite admitted. "My opening menu was really ambitious. And I think that it was a bit of a reach," he said. "I wanted to express some of the stuff that was like, hey, this is where I come from. And now we've gotten to a point where, hey, this is just good food. It looks nice on the plate and it tastes good."

I mention one dish I had, grilled octopus, which just went off the menu. First of all, octopus in a bar isn't exactly mozzarella sticks, but beyond that, the exuberantly splattered plating looked a lot more like El Ideas than sports bar. "I think that was more the plating than anything else. Because the flavors were supertraditional. Marinated grilled octopus. Eggplant. Potato, smoked paprika, frisee. It was really a pretty traditional dish. The way you read the menu, I like it to be pretty simple, and then you see the plate and you're like, oh wow, I didn't expect that."

"We still get some haters who are like, can you just bring In Fine Spirits back? Which I totally understand because I was up here when it was In Fine Spirits and it was awesome," he said. "But I also get people who say that I've unfucked the space, which is nice."

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