It’s kind of a big deal when a restaurant opens in Oak Park, The-Town-That-Seems-Like-It-Should-Have-More-Good-Restaurants-Than-It-Actually-Does.
Sitting by the window at student-run Eyrie on opening day, I marveled that just about every single civilian who walked by had to stop (or at least slow down) and peer into the newly opened storefront restaurant.
Eyrie, the student-run restaurant of Robert Morris University, is indeed open and ready for business – and they are really, really ready. There were definitely more student chefs in the house than there were customers, and although this gave Eyrie the feel of a resort-town-in-the-off-season, the students are almost painfully sincere and truly committed. And the idea of a “lab” where culinary students can see what it’s like to work in a restaurant is a helpful corrective to the troublesome trend of students walking out of culinary school, expecting to get their Food Network own series. (Jeff “Sandwich King” Mauro, congrats on your Food Network Star win, but you’re not helping this situation).
Last week, I was talking with Scott Walton, Executive Chef at Markethouse in Chicago, and he observed that “Young chefs think working in a kitchen is magical, because of what they’ve seen on television.” No doubt, Top Chef has inspired young ones to seek culinary degrees as surely as CSI has inspired degrees in criminology and forensic science. Eyrie has the advantage of being a freestanding building, unlike in-house operations at Kendall College and Le Cordon Bleu. It is, according to Oak Parker and chef/instructor Cheryl Corrado, “more like a real restaurant experience” and thus a more valuable learning opportunity for students. “It doesn’t have that school ‘buffer,’” Corrado pointed out, “and so students don’t actually feel like they’re in class, in school. Here, students can’t be a no-show and call me about making up a class. This is a job, a responsibility they owe not only to fellow students but to me and to people who are walking through the door. This a job that students go to, and not just a class.”
Corrado heads the kitchen at Eyrie, and she mentions on her menu that “I initially received my passion for culinary arts from my grandfather.” Noting that Italian influence, I started with Ribbolita Soup of Tuscan white beans, heavy on the herbs and very hearty. For $3, it’s a value, and although prices seem a little higher at Eyrie than they might be at, say, George’s, they’re reasonable – and they kind of should be, as the chefs are actually paying to work here.
The Whitefish Sandwich was lightly fried and the lemon remoulade provides good acidic counterpoint to the crisp batter. Though not indicated on the menu, this sandwich comes with a small salad and fingerling potatoes, so for $10, it’s lunch.
Gratuities are not accepted, though the menu tells us we can make a donation to the Robert Morris University Scholarship Fund…but to do that you have to go home and get on your computer and go to their website. This is an admirable but problematic approach and it’s doubtful many will take the initiative to go to the site to donate 15-20% of their check total to the RMU. In addition, it seems that student servers should acquire an understanding of how tipping works, an education they won’t receive under this system.
So was the experience at Eyrie flawless? No, but it was opening day, and I’m not going to nit-pick a restaurant that was open less than an hour when I stopped in. It’s a good place to eat, and we can always use more of that kind of restaurant in Oak Park.