Transformations: Rethinking the Alhambra | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Transformations: Rethinking the Alhambra 

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Alhambra Palace

1240 W. Randolph

312-666-9555

All new restaurants face obstacles, but Alhambra Palace has been besieged by problems since it opened in late April. Its daunting scale--24,000 square feet seating up to 1,400--and over-the-top decor ("It's Medieval Times: Baghdad," quipped one poster at LTHForum) set tongues wagging early. Foodies were stunned when Beard-nominated French chef Eric Aubriot (Aubriot, Narra, Fuse) was brought on board as executive chef, and catty when complaints about overpriced pedestrian food, lost reservations, and three-hour waits at the table swarmed the Internet. Then, just weeks into the venture, Aubriot left.

The obvious question for anyone involved is: what were you thinking? Aubriot couldn't be reached for his take, and Alhambra Palace owner Naser Rustom declined to be interviewed. But general manager Fareed Nobahar, a former restaurant owner who ran the front of the house at the Signature Room, provided some background. When Nobahar signed on in the fall of 2006, two years of planning had gone into the restaurant and it was under construction on the site of an old mechanics' shop at the western end of the Randolph Street corridor. The idea, he says, was to create a museumlike setting for Rustom's rapidly expanding collection of artifacts purchased on trips to the Middle East and North Africa. As the collection grew, so did the project, from one story to two, with a price tag of "more than $5 million but less than $10 million," Nobahar says. Rustom, a Palestinian-born physician who operates several clinics, also owned the Wicker Park Middle Eastern hot spot Souk, but closed it last year to concentrate on the new project.

"Dr. Rustom wanted customers to be able to enjoy the food, the live music, the whole experience on a grand scale unprecedented in this country," says Nobahar. Rustom's admiration for the Alhambra, the Moorish palace and fortress in Granada, Spain, inspired the name as well as the elaborate mosaics, tile work, waterfalls, and garden. Guests in the bar and lounge can order up a hookah, and there's live music and belly dancers in the enormous, domed Alhambra Room, which alone can seat hundreds. (Belly dancers entertain in the formal dining room as well.)

The owner's love for tagines and other Moroccan food, also fueled by his travels, influenced the menu concept, which like Souk's was to include some North African dishes as well as Middle Eastern mainstays. The Gallic influence on Moroccan cooking led to Aubriot's hire, Nobahar says. But even as skeptics predicted that the peripatetic Aubriot wouldn't work out, his replacement was waiting in the wings. Daniel Wright, former executive chef at Souk, was hired as Alhambra Palace's new executive chef on May 21.

Wright, who's 31 and mostly self-taught, had been working as a restaurant consultant for the past six months. But earlier in the planning process he designed Alhambra's two kitchens, and he knows how to use them efficiently, including dedicating the upstairs one to pastry (something Aubriot didn't do).

He has a big job ahead of him, however: he's developing a menu of upscale "modern Moroccan cuisine" for the 100-seat formal dining room in addition to the more traditional mezes, tagines, couscous, and kebabs served there and throughout the restaurant and lounge. He'd like the food to have a "wow" factor to rival the decor.

The revised menu instituted May 25 is still evolving, but in addition to hummus, baba ghanoush, dolmas, and other standard appetizers, there are specialties such as lebna, thick, garlic-infused yogurt; zaalouck, a spicy eggplant and tomato dip; grilled shrimp chermoula, marinated in a paste of cilantro, red chile, cumin, and garlic; and Tunisian brik, fried square pastries stuffed with tuna and egg seasoned with saffron and lemon. Condiments like spicy harissa and a sweet mint sauce are made in-house.

Wright says he's also changed entree presentations. Responding to charges of blandness, he's given the papillote of tilapia a "Moroccan-friendly" bed of squash, artichoke, zucchini, celery, golden raisins, and ras el hanout, a complex spice blend. Lamb shank tagine now comes with braised Swiss chard with onions and currants as well as couscous. He says he's replacing the lobster ravioli with "something more appropriate" as soon as he runs out of the supply in the freezer.

Wright sees training and motivating his kitchen staff of 18 as key. "Our weekend covers range from 700 to 1,100 a night, and restaurants all over Las Vegas regularly handle numbers like that," he points out. "There's no reason we shouldn't be able to." --Anne Spiselman

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): New chef Daniel Wright and a new appetizer, shrimp chermoula, a Alhambra Palace photo by Eric Futran.

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