At Young American Nick Jirasek will paint it black | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

At Young American Nick Jirasek will paint it black 

The upcoming barstaurant from Leisure Activities will serve up life, wellness, freshness, and death.

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click to enlarge Goth Bread

Goth Bread

Matthew Gilson

The menu for Logan Square's upcoming Young American will feature "Goth" bread, blackened with activated charcoal and leek ash, along with hummus stained with black sesame tahini. There will be "nighttime sisig," the porky Filipino pig face skillet, stir-fried with squid ink. And there will be a fermented Chinese black bean brandade, garnished with dulse, the umami-rich sea vegetable that looks like something that would wrap around your limbs and pull you under the water.

"We're putting the beans in with the butter that goes in with whipping the potatoes," says chef Nick Jirasek. "So they kind of seep out, almost bleeding into the emulsion, like chocolate chip ice cream. The red sea lettuce is like a forest floor. It's dead—but in a good way. A lot of the things will look very dead."

That's a pretty dark turn from his fun, nostalgic American bar food menu at Old Habits/Ludlow Liquors. And it seems at odds with the chirpy press release that announced its impending arrival last September: "Young Americans are brimming with energy and creativity, they approach life with a sense of possibility, inclusivity and purpose." Then again, the lyrics to the 1975 Bowie hit it references—about squandered youth and a dead-end marriage—couldn't be more at odds with the music's exuberant plastic soul.

Jirasek, who came up cooking in the art scene and whose food has always been high concept, maintains there's nothing sinister in these dishes. In fact, his menu is built upon ingredients that haven't yet gone mainstream but are prevalent in diets associated with the so-called wellness movement.

"So much of what I've been doing over the past five or six years has been interacting with people I know who have these weird, different eating habits and wanting to empathize with that in some way. I'm just playing with these ingredients and trying to use them in a way that is more culinarily focused." In other words: not diet food.

OK, black, or just dark foods in general, are high in anthocyanins, antioxidants that some believe have antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer properties. But Jirasek also wants to prank on the misconception that freshness and wholesomeness is a de facto bright, dewy, market-fresh Instagram post bedecked with edible microflora. A lot of the foods he's experimenting with will be challenging to behold, and perhaps challenging for some to understand.

That's why the barstaurant, opening shortly after the New Year in the space once occupied by Johnny's Grill and Mezcaleria Las Flores, is adopting a chef-centered service model. Jirasek's cooks will also be serving the food, which brings them into the tip pool and also situates them to explain that the kava that flavors the adobo-braised Spanish peanuts is a Polynesian plant, known for it sedative, euphoric effects, that lends the dish a floral, numbing sensation, not unlike a Sichuan peppercorn. They can tell you that the lamb tartare seasoned with black cardamom and cumin is a play on Ethiopian kitfo, and will just briefly be sizzled in hot chili oil. They can explain that the mignonette served with the steamed Gulf oysters is made with raisiny-tasting sea buckthorn juice, garlic, and ginger, and has a North African profile. And they'll point out that the "calmonds" are roasted and seasoned with thyme, chicken salt, chamomile, and olive oil infused with CBD, the soothing, nonpsychoactive cannabinoid on everyone's nightstand.

The bar program, helmed by Julia McKinley, formerly of Lonesome Rose, Lost Lake, and the Milk Room, will feature a handful of nonalcoholic cocktails, offered with an option to spike them with CBD powder. There's a turmeric tonic tea, with hibiscus, lime, and aquafaba, the canned chickpea liquid beloved by vegans for its ability to be aerated into foams and meringue; and Electric Eye, made with a tea spiked with gin botanicals, lapsang souchong, and lemon soda.

"I'm using a lot of turmeric to come up with nonalcoholic cocktails," says McKinley. "You want something to give somebody pause; something that gives you a sensation, something you don't want to slam. It's part of creating an environment that's fun and chill to hang out in even if you aren't drinking."

Young American comes from Leisure Activities, the group fronted by Wade McElroy and Jeff Donahue, known for Sportsman's Club, Estereo, and Larry's before they lured Jirasek back from the Mendocino County cannabis farm he was cooking at to open Ludlow Liquors.

Jirasek says the name they chose stirred up some guff in informal focus groups among people who don't feel particularly proud to be Americans at the moment.

"We got some negative reaction because of 'Make America Great Again,'" he says. "But part of what we're trying to do is take back the idea of what it is to be youthful and hopeful in America and at the same time acknowledge there's a lot of fucking crazy fucked-up shit going on. So, yeah: life, death, freshness."  v

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