TY FUJIMURA IS STANDING OUTSIDE IN a Bulls t-shirt and Cubs hat, lighting a cigarette when I walk up to Entente on a muggy night in early October. It’s just over a week before his modern American restaurant will open in the former Ani space on Lincoln Ave., and an hour till a small group of writers descends for a preview dinner. Lost in thought, he doesn’t recognize me right away.

“I’m nervous,” he finally says. “I’m just so ready to get the fucking doors open. But we’re on this path now. It’s unfolding.”

 

 

Chef Brian Fisher, pastry chef Mari Katsumura, owner Ty Fujimura, beverage director Angie SilberbergMatt Meschede

Chef Brian Fisher, pastry chef Mari Katsumura, owner Ty Fujimura, beverage director Angie Silberberg

“I’VE BEEN FOCUSED ON JAPANESE CONCEPTS for the past few years, but I have other interests,” he says. “I wanted to stretch myself creatively, and this felt like the right time professionally to do it. But I know the stakes are high, so I really want to make sure we come out guns blazing.”

It’s easy to understand Fujimura’s anxiety. It’s been six months since he announced plans to reconcept his two-year-old Japanese spot Ani into what’s been dubbed a casual fine-dining restaurant with a highly collaborative menu. The stakes went up this summer when he unveiled the impressive lineup of talent helming the menu and beverage program: executive chef and Schwa vet Brian Fisher (who consulted on Saved By the Max’s opening menu), pastry chef Mari Katsumura (Grace, Acadia) and general manager and beverage director Angie Silberberg (Cochon Volant).

Named with a French term for friendship or agreement, Entente is the 13th concept the 40-year-old Fujimura has opened or consulted on over two decades living in Chicago. (His namesake Fujimura Hospitality group also brought us craft beer bar Small Bar, soccer pub Heineken Pub97, and Japanese spot Arami.)

ent10Maggie Hennessy

It’s an intimate, 20-seat space, marrying reclaimed wood tables and installations with industrial elements like light fixtures made from whiskey barrel staves. Just past a waist-high row of planters with dried branches and succulents is an eight-seat bar. Its back wall, bedecked in cube shelving, also acts as the physical barrier separating a smaller dining room in back. The 12-seat room, anchored by a communal, live-edge wood table, boasts a widescreen view into Fisher’s kitchen.

Fujimura has changed into a button-down shirt and is pouring wine for the writers as they trickle into the dining room. We will be just the second group outside the restaurant staff to taste Fisher and Katsumura’s menu, following an investor dinner a few nights earlier. The 16 a la carte dishes including dessert range from comfy (pimento cheese- and iceberg-topped burger with fries) to molecular (compressed watermelon tartare imbued with meyer lemon and sumac, with the eerie/genius texture of raw meat).

Kale salad: Napa cabbage, crunchy noodles, sunflower seeds, Thai noodles Michael Gebert

Kale salad: Napa cabbage, crunchy noodles, sunflower seeds, Thai noodles

We slather faintly smoky chicken liver mousse with concord grape jelly and pumpkin seed butter on slices of Katsumura’s cobwebby sourdough; its flavors mimic a luscious, grown-up peanut butter and jelly. Crispy-skinned chai-brined chicken breast and confited thigh with butternut squash and maitake mushrooms gets an intriguingly sweet, warming note from chai foam. An impeccably cooked disk of pork belly is almost predictably autumnal with celery root puree, pecan streusel and apple butter. It reminds me of my mom’s corned beef.

“The biggest thing is we’re taking familiar ingredients and presenting them in an unfamiliar way,” Fisher later says. “Some things are more straightforward; some are more manipulated—the presentation has a lot to do with it. But it’s all rooted in technique and seasonality.”

Graziano OMG

 

 

ent4 Michael Gebert

THE ABUNDANTLY BEARDED FISHER IS quiet and self-effacing. He spent several years as chef de cuisine at Schwa, Michael Carlson’s teensy tasting menu spot known for inventive, booze-soaked dinners. He met Fujimura there about four years ago when he came in for dinner.

Fisher’s been mulling his own concept for some time now, and recently sought out Fujimura for advice. “I took a meeting with him to see if I was crazy or if it was maybe a possibility,” he says. “But he already had a space and was looking to reconcept it, so he asked, ‘Why don’t you just do it here?’”

Fujimura has given his young executive chef creative free rein, but Fisher feels immense pressure that predates Entente, “not let down the people that put me in this position, whether it’s the people who trained me or the people who trusted me to do what we’re trying to do here,” he says.

Pork belly: apple, celery root, pecan streusel Michael Gebert

Pork belly: apple, celery root, pecan streusel

Save for the pulse of hip-hop and the buzzing Vitamix, Fisher runs a comparatively quiet kitchen, where he, Katsumura and two sous chefs scratch-make everything from cultured butter to yuba (bean curd skin). Just a few months in, theirs is a deeply symbiotic partnership.

“Mari’s my sounding board on everything I do,” Fisher says. “I have 100 percent faith in her.”

Katsumura made a name for herself helming Acadia’s pastry kitchen and working alongside Blackbird’s Dana Cree, but she’s spent time on the savory side of the kitchen, too. She’s even created Entente’s two opening-menu salads—a super-textural charred napa cabbage and fried kale salad with crispy noodles and Thai herbs, and a wedge with green goddess dressing that Fisher first tasted during staff meal. “I didn’t think a wedge could be fancy, but she’s done it,” he says.

Katsumura’s also behind course five of the preview dinner—a lightly sweet palate cleanser of soy three ways (sorbet, pudding and yuba) with candied edamame. It looks like an edible lily pad, and is gelatinous, crunchy and smooth all at once.

 

 

ent8 Michael Gebert

BY THIS POINT THE TABLE IS THREATENING to overflow with glassware amid the slew of wines Silberberg’s poured us from Entente’s 50-ish-bottle list. An unfiltered Thackrey & Co. Fifi sangiovese rose becomes increasingly tart as it sits in the glass—“almost till it tastes like cranberry juice,” Silberberg says. A cloudy, herbaceous Clarine Farms Mourvedre ‘Cedarville’ is aged in tanks without racking so it remains undisturbed—mimicking a medieval-era, “do nothing” farming philosophy.

She admits that there are a few things on the list that she wouldn’t even recommend diners drink without food. “Brian and I like to drink some really funky wines,” she says. The two worked together to cultivate a list that’s not just weird, but 100 percent natural (biodynamic, organic and handmade).

After a delightfully squishy profiterole that looks like a Mexican sweet-topped bun and tastes of sassafras with bursts of sour cherry, the final dessert course arrives. It’s a moist, not-too-sweet tres leches cake dotted with candied pumpkin seeds, sorghum and popcorn, with the center carved out to house a scoop of hojicha (green tea) ice cream.

“What did you think?” Katsumura asks. I tell her it reminded me of a muted pumpkin pie, in a good way.

“The best analogy we came up for it was Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” she replies. My mind drifts to those softening pillows of cinnamon-sugar cereal leaching sugary coating into the milk. “That’s it!” I cry.

Tres leches: hojicha, pumpkin, sorghum Michael Gebert

Tres leches: hojicha, pumpkin, sorghum

A couple of writers have remarked about feeling like fish in a bowl, as several curious passers-by have stopped to peer in at us through Entente’s windowed facade. A few are emboldened enough to come in. Silberberg slowly ushers them out, promising, “Just a few more days till we open!”

“This keeps happening,” she later says. “The neighborhood’s ready for us.”

The team aims to be at the ground level of what Fisher calls “a revitalization” for this forgotten stretch of Lakeview, which right now is mostly populated by futon and carpet stores.

But it won’t be easy. With such a disparate range of a la carte dishes and no shortage of challenging, unfamiliar wines, the team will be heavily reliant on the front of house staff to guide the guests, especially since the tasting menu service won’t launch till later this year. That’s partly why Fujimura brought the front-of-house staff in on the menu development process early, to cultivate enthusiasm, accountability and—he hopes—longevity.

HP

“It’s not just Brian and Mari working together to bring this to fruition,” Fujimura says. “We’ve all been at the table, going through ideas, tasting dishes and getting on the same page. It’s important that individual players have real input—that it’s not just singular roles. I think that in of itself is fun and attracts good talent.”

He also insists that this generation of diners is ready and willing to be nudged into more adventurous eating—particularly with such an accessible price point. (The most expensive dish costs $22.) “The menu’s vague by design—some dishes should be shared, some individual,” he says. “We’ll encourage people to course it out. I think people want to be led; they trust chefs now more than ever.”

 

 

ent1 Michael Gebert

THE LAST OF THE PLATES has been cleared, and the chefs have retreated out back for a smoke. Fujimura cheerfully passes out digestifs as he walks the writers through a few final menu tweaks—the opening menu will have cobia, not halibut; the chicken liver will be paired with crumpets. The mood is lighter all around, yet still tempered with the intensity of knowing that opening night looms large.

Fujimura drains the last bit of amaro from his glass, and puts an arm around my shoulder. “This was good,” he says, turning to Silberberg.

“I gotta drop my kid off at 8:30 tomorrow, and then I’ll be in,” he says.

“I’ll be here,” she replies. He slings his duffle bag over his shoulder and smiles.

“Let’s go again!”

ent3 Michael Gebert

Entente opened last Friday, October 14.

 


Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food & drink writer and chef who likes real dive bars and bread with every meal. You can find her work in Chicago magazine, Bon Appetit’s City Guides, Thrillist, Restaurant Business, QSR magazine and the National Culinary Review. She’s also co-authoring the forthcoming Twisted Spoke cookbook with chef/owner Mitch Einhorn. Follow her latest at MaggieHennessy.com.


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