Author Archives: Jenny

Some Things Never Change

It’s hard to believe it was just two years ago when we were ridden with anxiety and with brave faces prepping for our very first Friday. It was the day Red Eye decided to splash us prematurely on a two page spread in their Restaurant Features, and in an odd coincidence the day the utility pole outside our back door came crashing down on neighbor Michael’s poor garage from the 70 mph winds foreboding one of the heaviest rain storms that summer.

I don’t know how, but we managed to do 63 covers (two full turns) all whilst uncomfortably blotting rain water relentlessly leaking through our windows and spilling onto the tables of some of the nicest and most understanding diners you could ever meet.

We have grown tremendously as a restaurant since then, gaining the attention of some heavy weights in the press and food world along the way. And while 63 covers today isn’t anything to sneeze at, it certainly doesn’t induce the same kind of trepidation it did two years ago.

There is an old griddle that we inherited from the previous restaurant tenant. The kind that looks like it’s been through hell and back. We’ve been using it, along with other pots, pans, refrigerators and serving ware that came with the space. Mostly because it saved us from going out and buying new. But over time, and from the great fortune of staying busy, the old things began disappearing one by one. And in its place would appear shinier things. But for some reason, this griddle, whose very first appointment was to heat up sourdough crostini which went along with a bowl full of steaming mussels, couldn’t be rid. And even after its bottom gave out and began warping, it’s still a crucial vessel used for some of the dishes we serve today.

The other day Vicki brought in a brand new griddle pan from a recent shopping trip. But in the same absurd manner in which my dad would wear the same worn sneakers for years and years refusing a new pair until the soles flop off, the cooks would reach straight past the brand new griddle every time and take down the old one. Puzzled by this, we asked if the new pan wasn’t the right kind. “No, it just doesn’t make the same flavor as the old guy” Ed would say to us. Could be. I speculate it also brings a sense of old comfort to the rapidly growing and evolving kitchen. It keeps us grounded and reminds us where we began.

Cheers to our Two Year Anniversary!

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Making the List

Lists are my sanity.  Making them, seeking them, referring back to them as often as I can, crossing them off, and repeating the process over again.  If you live by them (particularly those of the silent badgering To Do variety) just as much as I do, you’d understand how essential they are for processing a multitude of things at once.  On my desk right now is a shopping list of groceries that hadn’t made the day’s delivery, a list of phone calls and emails to return, a list of pros and cons (of a deeply personal matter that needn’t be divulged here), a list of places visited and remembered in Paris this past Labor Day, a list of neglected lists from previous weeks (ranked of course by priority), a list of goals for Ruxbin written in shorthand, and a crumpled up prep list Eddy must have left behind at some point.

But lists are also my repose.  There is nothing I enjoy greater than combing through somebody’s cherished book list, playlist, or bucket list.  While there is hardly any time for watching movies these days, I still like to check the box office list from time to time to see the weekend gross.  There is something very gratifying about making your way down a list.  The cognitive leg work of sorting things out has already been done, leaving you with the easy option to relate or dissociate.

Which brings me to a rather momentous list that’s recently touched our lives here at Ruxbin.  The abridged version is that we were fortunate enough to experience the “popular new kid” phase last summer when we first opened our doors, as evidenced by the frequency of nights we’d run out of tables.  And luckily, our passage into the “old news” bit wasn’t so painful, as we were still filling capacity with ease on most nights.  But the “hottest newest” effect was in truth beginning to wear off midsummer.  At first, we’d reason that we were experiencing slow season in Chicago just like everybody else.  Who would want to be cooped up inside on a warm summer night anyway?  Summertime is numbered in this city, and if we weren’t ourselves tied to running a restaurant we’d be at the lake with our coolers too.  But to be honest, the dip in covers had some of us a little concerned.

In a surprising turn of events a mere week after addressing this eventual slowdown, we were named 5th Best New Restaurant in the country by Bon Appetit in their highly regarded restaurant issue.  I imagine most consider these rankings and Top Ten lists arbitrary to some degree.  Especially because opinions are by definition subjective.  But when the opinion belongs to a trusted and well-traveled gourmet who carries a great deal of influence in the industry, it dares to cross over into something more than just an opinion.   We’ve certainly had noteworthy mentions in the press before, but nothing as bold as “Number 5 in the Country”.  Something about this label imparted a new sense of validation at Ruxbin for what we do each service and all the hours surrounding it.  And after the initial wave of excitement, it began to pose some serious inner-reflective questions which had me feeling the need to form some sort of construct to understand the meaning behind it all.

This past fall break, we were lucky enough to book a table at Le Chateaubriand, the highest ranked restaurant in Paris and 9th in the world according to Pellegrino’s 2011 list.  I was anticipating the meal of my life.  And as each course presented itself to us, I found myself scrutinizing a little more and indulging a little less.  It was as though the weight of this “Number 9″ had me stranded in a jungle of critiques.  There were palate-rousing flavors [a roasted chicken so replete with almond extract, a pairing so odd that it stripped away any sense of familiarity I ever had to chicken] and textures I have never experienced before [duck heart coated in seeds and having every bit of an organ-like texture you'd imagine an organ to be].  I tried creatures that will haunt me forever [salty barnacles resembling the claw of a sea dragon which juiced with each bite and had minuscule mussels latched tightly to its skin].  There was shock factor [a raw mushroom opulently covered in rich dark chocolate with nothing more than a sprig of mint] and moments of sheer appreciation [a refreshing ceviche with pickling juice and peach, and an array of herbs piled atop a floral scented ice cream].  It wasn’t until Eddy cut the circuit of critiques at the table by raising a pretty straight-forward question that we realized our gaffe.  It wasn’t whether or not we liked the barnacles or chocolate covered mushroom, as that would be debatable.  He simply asked if we were having a good time.  And to that our answer was a resounding yes.

What I learned most from that five course dinner at Le Chateaubriand and how it relates to us at Ruxbin is that there really is no universal check-list of criteria.  What makes a good restaurant for one person could be if the food has challenged them or not, and for somebody else it might be the level of service received.  For Bon Appetit editor Andrew Knowlton, I think the determining factor was whether or not a restaurant afforded him a good and memorable experience.  As sited straight from The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, “an interesting experience in a simple establishment, where exceptional innovation was discovered, could be judged better than a more opulent meal from a widely feted restaurant team.”   When Mr. Knowlton recognized something special about Ruxbin, it was reaffirming and humbling for all of us.  In our hearts, we knew we had a good thing going.  A restaurant that, above all things, cultivates sincerity in both the food we cook and the service we give.  But to see it recognized on a very national scale is a privilege that we know we cannot take lightly.

We had the opportunity to share a round of drinks with Mr. Knowlton a couple nights ago, and we thanked him for the recognition.  He responded by thanking us for a great meal, one that he apparently hadn’t forgotten in over four months’ time, as he recounted with fondness our bouillabaisse-like mussels, the crispy eggplant salad with golden beet batons, and how warm and inviting our staff was.  Naturally, all this comes with more pressure to do more and be better.  But if you were to ask what it means to be number 5, my answer would be simple.  We try our best to ensure our guests have a good time, and perhaps they will leave with a happy rivet in the memory of the dinner they’ve just been served.

Savoring pastries in Paris.

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House-Grown Part II …

Here is a look at our growing garden.  Photos courtesy of Nate Chung.

Our heirloom tomatoes have gotten much taller and stronger. Growing among them are young sesame leaves, sourced straight from my mother's garden.

The Sun Gold tomatoes have already started to blossom. A good sign of juicy things to come!

Mint happily growing next to our Golden Sage.

Left: We've been using the Sweet Alyssum (edible flowers) to garnish our Soba. Right: Three rows of baby lettuces have just begun to sprout.

Jason's spring onions nestled in between the flowering kale are doing quite well too.

Our Bean Bush. Easily the most anticipated vegetable growing on the roof. We planted a colorful trio of Blue Lake 274, Cherokee Wax, and Purple Queens.

The baby lettuces were last to be planted but they are quickly sprouting and catching up.

                           The rooftop garden also serves as a nice respite during staff meals.  Here we are enjoying Tacos de Panza roofside. 

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House-Grown

We’ll be making a go of our very own rooftop garden this month.  Plans have been brewing among our kitchen crew since the first hint of spring, and images of tri-color carrots and candy-striped radishes have danced in our heads all winter long.  Despite a few serious logistical concerns (having no direct water line would make for a tricky irrigation system, figuring which crops could withstand the colossal amount of full sun our aluminum tinned roof absorbs on a hot summer day could be somewhat limiting, how do we protect the tiny sprouts from the torrential 50mph winds often experienced on roof level, how much weight can this old building even support, and most importantly who will haul up the stacks of 40 lb. soil bags four flights of rickety stairs?) we resolved to move forward.

Here we go!

Leapfrogging the soil one flight at a time

A winded crew taking a much needed breather after lugging up 640 pounds of dirt

Configuring the raised beds

Creating a layer of compost using egg crates, shells, and coffee grinds

As the garden grows we’ll continue to document and share the progress with you.

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Improvising

Nearly every dish we serve at Ruxbin has been developed over the course of several weeks in thoughtful layers to achieve a proper balance of flavor and texture without compromising the integrity of the ingredients.  But in opportune moments that come to us in the form of a quiet Sunday dinner service where the kitchen is alive and ready to build from the mise en place they have worked all afternoon to prepare, there is a flash of inspiration and in a matter of minutes, a series of savory treats appear in the window pass.   Some make it to the tables of our guests to enjoy as an amuse-bouche.  Some are gobbled up on sight.

“Spring Bite” – bacon, blue cheese, kumquat & basil  (photo courtesy of Iris K. Shim)
 

“Caesar Salad” –  Brioche crouton, endive, preserved lemon, parsley pluche, white anchovy & Caesar dressing

“Bistro Salad” – Quail egg, frisee, lardons, baby radish, sherry vinaigrette & crostini
“Ants on a Log” –  Crispy potato pirouette, nicoise olives, creme fraiche, fine herbs & red beet puree

This one is a nod to a Thomas Keller classic, ours was filled with goat cheese grits, and rib jus that was left at the end of service to become a playful treat for our staff at the end of the night
This one is a nod to a Thomas Keller classic.  Ours was a hollowed eggshell filled with goat cheese grits, rib jus, and a laminated potato chip.  A playful treat for the front crew at the end of service.

 

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Milestones

They say a child at two months can hold his head up for short periods of time (albeit a little wobbly) follow objects across its field of vision, smile back at you, and sometimes, if he is developing quickly enough, he can bear weight on his little legs.

by Jenny, (1:47pm)

In some ways, opening Ruxbin has been like raising a child. It might not be as severe a responsibility as actual parenting, but the similarities abound.  Ruxbin has been that ever-demanding, attention-craving child that depends on you alone, the first-time parent who is kept up at night plagued by worry but also a hopeful anticipation of things to come.

If you do not muster up the energy to stay behind and start the arduous process of the 13 hour chicken stock boil after a late service that forces you on your feet for twelve straight hours, then we do not have mussels for the next night, and what do you tell the lovely elderly couple that stop in occasionally just for the mussels if there are none to offer?

If you do not will yourself to climb out of bed at 8am the following morning to receive the CSA boxes from the folks at Triple A Farms, then how will our neighbors receive their farm-fresh-vegetable rations for the week?

If you do not make time to observe your cooks, the dishwasher, and servers to see to it that they are happy and listen to their needs (i.e. running out to Stanley’s last minute if the lemons didn’t make the delivery, getting the kitchen tool that makes their prep a little bit easier, and making sure everyone gets fed family meal before service) then who will provide a good working environment in which we share every waking hour of the day together?

When it becomes abundantly clear that others depend on Ruxbin, you no longer have the option not to maintain the kitchen equipment (which concertedly takes turns breaking down), or keep on top of the taxes, the bills, and all the expenses that come to you in a messy, heaping pile of receipts every day.  It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do but someone’s gotta do it.

But the joy of seeing a cab pull up and drop off an array of people at our door who may have been looking forward to dinner just as much as we were anticipating them, or watching the anonymous faces light up after the very first bite, and hearing Andres our dishwasher sing while he works (a clear indication that it is a good night) makes this all worthwhile.

It’s Ruxbin smiling back at you and showing he can now bear weight on his little legs.

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It’s go time

I hope you’ll understand our hiatus from the weekly updates.  I can’t begin to tell you how much has happened these past

by Jenny, (3:17am)

few weeks.  For one, we’re gearing up for our pre-opening dinner series, and I am sitting in my most favorite seat at Ruxbin, on the loft facing the kitchen pass keeping Chef company as he preps out the last of his mojo (mo-ho) chicken for tomorrow night.  The flank steaks are all swimming in the glorious marinade reminiscent to the motherland’s kalbi, the flourless chocolate cake and ramboutan panna cotta are chilling prettily in the merchandiser, the pork loin has been cut, and now it’s 3am and we’re sleepy and delirious, remarkably so.  But the anticipation fuels us all through the night, every night, and wakes us up before the sun peaks out as we prepare and prepare some more.  The inventory’s been counted, the menu’s been printed, the staff assembled, the reservations confirmed, the lights have gone up, and now…  It’s go time.

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Green Light

by Jenny, (4:37pm)

“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay….You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”  -The Great Gatsby

our final checklist paired down to the last few items

Our days leading into city inspections were comprised of measuring, drilling, tiling, grouting, caulking, lugging heavy things down to basement, wrestling with the toilet, painting, hauling heavy things upstairs, removing basement clutter left behind from the previous tenant (of which included random cement cinder blocks, bins of dry goods going bad, 50 cans of paint I kid you not, large framed paintings that were a bit on the frightening side) vacuuming infinite layers of dust, moving equipment around, purchasing big heavy things from Home Depot and miraculously transporting them in Ed’s mini hatchback, nailing things to the wall, sweeping, tongue oil-ing, mopping, fixing leaky pipes, repairing refrigerators, moving heavy equipment around some more and sanitizing, scrubbing the floors, washing the walls, attacking unsightly holes with gooey foam spray, getting more heavy things from Home Depot, wiping down endless surface areas, and doing our best to control unceasing saw dust accumulation from our Alter Ego friends constructing all the wonderful things in the front of the house.

clearing out of the basement crawl space felt oddly similar to Mary Poppins pulling out unimaginable things from her bag.

prepared for the deepest clean of our lives. this biohazard suit we found laying around had my name written all over it

We knew exactly what we were working towards: to get Ruxbin open.  And we knew that we’d inevitably be granted the green light from the City.  But when we were in the thick of it, delirious from lack of sleep and/or inhaling too much dust and cleaning product fume, the thought of passing through inspections seemed like such a faraway notion.  Thankfully our due diligence paid off big time.  We passed!

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Shot Clock

When spring arrives in Chicago, there’s something in the air that lifts and rejuvenates the benumbed and tired spirits in an uncanny sort of way.  Work at Ruxbin has been humming along in short order over the bleakest of winter days, with one grey day overlapping into the next.  But today marks a special occasion.  Not just because we can see (both literally and figuratively) the light at the end of the tunnel.  Today we’ve officially put in our application to the City for our business license.  Now it’s just a race to the finish, as we dot all the i’s and cross all our t’s.  And hopefully soon, we’ll be open and in full swing!

Our intern extraordinaire drafting our temporary window sign. Nate, you're a God-send!

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Taking Shape

by Jenny, 11:01pm

The space is starting to resemble a real restaurant.  Among other things, the kitchen now has a shiny new prep table, a deep fryer for Eddy’s irresistible panisse, and two brand new burner ranges.

And in the dining room something magical is taking shape.  All the pieces that will fill this room and bring it to life have been coming together bit by bit in the imaginative workshop of Alter Ego.  Last night we got the first installment of our seats, light fixtures, and wall panels.  Having seen these pieces in various stages at the workshop, we’ve been astounded by the craftsmanship of Mozart’s crew before.  But here in the space and attuned to the surroundings, the pieces felt like a mound of treasure we were unearthing for the very first time.  We couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear.

apple juice shipping crates re-purposed into wall paneling.

light fixture doubles as art work and conversation piece.

custom built with pews salvaged from an old Baptist church.

the beginnings of our banquette strapped down with seatbelts taken from abandoned cars in a junkyard lot and the legs from old movie theater seats.

our booths showcase the old church pews and thrift shop leather jackets in a whole new way.

awaiting its first dinner guest.

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Who’da thunk?

by Jenny, 10:43pm

The dining room floors.  It was one of the first things we decided to leave.  Ed and Vicki immediately took a liking to the odd and misshapen floors.  They had a strange patched together quality about them that took a little getting used to but eventually they grew on me too.  And after all, there was already so much work that needed to be done to the space, we simply couldn’t redo everything.   Traditional white oak hardwood blanketed 80% of the space with large boards of plywood bordering the north and east ends.  Some of the oak planks were buckling over and appeared to be held together by a smattering of exposed nails.   I just thought they looked sorta funny.  Never in a million years would I have guessed what lurked beneath it all……

Mozart’s crew loved the aesthetic of the patchy floors, but they also wanted very badly to fix the problem areas for us.  This is what they found when they lifted one of the boards…..

That ladies and gentleman is carpet you see.  Yep, you read that right.  Carpet under hardwood.  Now for the average person this may be a little unsightly and perhaps even amusing.  If you know much about me, you’ll know I can be a little phobic when it comes to germs.  The mere thought of what could have been festering in the fibers of that carpet that hadn’t seen the light of day in god knows how long made me want to gag.  It was sheer mortification like I hadn’t felt in a very long time.

So after having another stressful visit with the expense tracker, and tweaking and re-working our numbers some more, we finally found a way to rid the moldy carpet and stay in budget.  Yes, my friends, we decided to do the work ourselves.  Stay tuned for more details!

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Evolving into a Night Owl

by Jenny, 1:32am

I am normally not one to compromise a good 8 hours of sleep.  I have been known to fall asleep in movies when we catch the 10pm show.  I have also been accused of being too grouchy to be around when said 8 hour goal has not been achieved.  Sleep makes me happy and I could do it all day if there weren’t things to tend to.  I track time the way my dog Louie watches for table scraps.  But in the last few weeks it has been a bit of a battle just getting to bed.  Too many things left to do and the list just grows and grows like a weed.  By the time I’m finally under the covers I find myself having mini panic attacks as I count in one hand the number of hours I’ll get to sleep before the room floods with light and hustles me back to my feet.

louie

It only just dawned on me that my neurotic counting of the hours had stopped.  It’s a quarter past one with T-6 hours before my alarm goes off.  And while I have the option to turn in for the night at a reasonable hour today, I choose to stay up and decant my thoughts with you.  But it’s not forced like it had been for a while when Eddy or Vicki would want to hold late night meetings to hammer out things that needed hammering out.  Of course the second cup of coffee helps, and I think it’s mostly the effect of being wired half the time.  But it’s beginning to feel more natural, this getting less than 8 hours of sleep club.

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Ready or not

by Jenny, 11:23am

The past 11 months of searching, scouring, finding, then talking our way deep into negotiations with prospective spaces and formulating big plans only to have something go awry and be left with nothing, is just a foggy memory now.  We have seen more lease agreements and contractor bids than I care to recount, and managed to rack up  over 10 versions of our business plan.  Here are some of the spaces we considered in all seriousness.

Then, in some serendipitous way when all of us were least expecting it, when we were all feeling pretty downtrodden and on the brink of questioning whether or not we were just building castles in the air, we  found it.  The space that will house our dreams, hopes, and ambitions that for so long was just a concept begging to come alive.

Space #14 ..... Ours

It’s finally happened and it’s happening fast.  Let the madness begin, we’re ready.

We are opening a restaurant.

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