First Bites: Lake Street Kitchen and Bar

There's pent up demand for restaurants like this

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By David Hammond

 “Every day, we had the Windex out, cleaning off the windows. There were nose prints all over.”

That’s what Rachel Dennis, Oak Parker and owner of Lake Street Kitchen + Bar, told me about the weeks leading up to opening her restaurant. This curiosity reflects the same Oak Park phenomenon I’d noted at the recently opened Eyrie: a new restaurant in Oak Park generates a lot of gawking and eager interest.

Biking past Lake Street Kitchen Bar on the first two nights of operation, I was surprised that the place was filled with people, jammed. Dennis told me she’d been able to pull that kind of traffic with no advertising whatsoever. Clearly there’s a lot of pent-up demand for restaurants like this in Oak Park.

As reported some months ago in the Wednesday Journal, an earlier plan for this space was that it would be a Johnny Rockets.  Anthony Shaker had announced that the letter of intent had been signed and everything looked ready to go…and then the deal went south.

At the critical corner of Lake and Marion, it’s much more desirable to have a one-of-a-kind restaurant than just one other chain outlet, and our first bites at Lake Street Kitchen Bar were promising.  Dennis told us that she doesn’t use any prepackaged food (SOP for chains), and she’s not putting in a fryer because, she said, “We’re not going to be serving burgers and fries. I mean really, does Lake Street need another hamburger place?”

As it turned out, we had actually been thinking of getting a hamburger that night, but were not disappointed in our Grape Flatbread ($8.50), which was freshly baked and studded with green grapes, blue cheese and rosemary, a good balance of sweetness, acidity, richness and herbaciousness.  Baking – and everything else in the kitchen – is under the watch of Chef Jason Kurosaki, formerly of Avec, one of Paul Kahan’s breakout dining spots and an excellent place to have on one’s resume.

There’s a very good collection of local craft beers on tap and in bottles, some unique house-crafted cocktails and martinis, as well as a good range of loose leaf tea, which you’d expect from a restaurant that’s aiming to serve at a higher level.

Whenever I spot Homemade Pickles ($5), they must be mine.  We received a colorful blend of onions, green beans, and yellow squash, all laced with slightly peppery sauce that was a good side for the flatbread.

The Hanger Steak ($19.50) was a flavorful piece of meat, with a caramelized crust, accented by kale and cannellini beans, nothing fancy but well executed. You can kind of tell that the restaurant is still working out the seasonings on some dishes, and though I really liked the piquant pepperiness of the sauce on the kale, there seemed to be a similar flavor profile on the house-made pickles.

“I hired a chef, not just a cook” Dennis told us, to underscore the importance she’s placing on the quality of the food she’s serving and Kurosaki is cooking. With Leonard Hollander at Marion Street Cheese Market Café, Kurosaki helps make Downtown Oak Park home to several chef-driven restaurants committed to serving food guided by a creative vision and aiming well above the level of corporate chain restaurants.

Oak Parkers are hungry for places like Lake Street Kitchen Bar, and that seems a very good thing for anyone who likes to eat.

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