A chef and a brewer realize the dream of a departed colleague.
The dream in question was that of Homaru Cantu, the forward-thinking chef who introduced the taste-altering miracle berry to the public, blended science and cooking at Moto in Chicago and took his own life in the bare bones of that brewery space.
Merges was Cantu’s boss at Charlie Trotter’s back in the day, as well as the chef behind a mini-empire of Chicago restaurants (Yusho, A10, Billy Sunday). He's partnered with Trevor Rose-Hamblin, Cantu’s former kitchen intern at Moto, and they're bringing Cantu's vision to life at Old Irving Brewing.
Today marks the arrival of a long-gestating project: a 6,000 square-foot brewery, outfitted with 15 barrels and a wood fire-centered menu from chef Michael Schrader. Located in Old Irving Park, the brewery pays homage to Cantu as well as the old manufacturing neighborhood.
“We want to give back to the area we’re in,” Merges says. “We’re telling its story.”
That doesn’t mean straightforward pub grub. The burger comes with bacon, white cheddar and grilled red onions on rosemary focaccia, and a berbere-spiced aioli is served alongside pigs feet croquettes. Rose-Hamblin’s seven beers evoke his culinary background under Cantu: The Precinct, for example, is a a cocoa nib-laced milk stout mean to evoke coffee and doughnuts; the Wit Walker is a Belgian wit brewed with ginger and star anise to mimic the aromatics found in pho. (For those looking for simpler brews, there are session beers. “We have beers for someone who comes in twice a week and for others going to a party or cracking a couple open straight from the fridge,” Merges says.)
The beers wander into the food, too. Spent grains become flatbreads and the brews infuse mussels and house-made mustard.
“So we’re taking Chicago, a city known to feed the world through the stockyards and with a wonderful history of brewing, and putting our own little twist,” Merges says.