Chef Paul Kahan has been showered with the sort of adulation normally reserved for dead poets and southern football coaches. named an F&W best new chef 1999 for his work at Chicago's Blackbird, Kahan has been described as a genius more times than is healthy for anyone who's still alive. indeed, at this point in his career, people would probably make reservations to watch him butter toast.
So on first meeting Kahan, 43, one might expect some arrogance or, at the least, affectation. Instead, he's all bed-head and Midwestern bonhomie. Arrestingly unpretentious, Kahan is the sort of guy who regularly goes ice fishing and refers to himself and his partners as "knuckleheads." It's as if the coolest guy on the company softball team also happens to be a star tenor at the Met.
Kahan's well-maintained reputation for regular guyness is one reason it's not shocking that his next project is a gastropub, albeit one with grander aspirations than most Chicago taverns. The as-yet-unnamed beer-centric neighborhood joint, slated to open in spring 2007 on the North Side, will feature the same style of food—obsessively seasonal and both straightforward and brilliant—that Kahan has become known for at Blackbird and its casual sister restaurant, Avec. Blackbird's sous-chef, Dylan Fultineer, will oversee the menu, which Kahan describes as "elemental, fun, American, pork-centric bar cuisine." Even some of the desserts, by Blackbird's talented pastry chef, Tara Lane, will be beer-friendly. A list of 60 or so international brews will rival some restaurant wine lists in breadth and quality.
"We wanted to do something nobody else in Chicago is doing," explains Donnie Madia, one of Kahan's partners. Kahan, true to form, offers a slightly more succinct explanation: "Donnie and I really like to drink beer."
The new restaurant exemplifies one of the less discussed (but no less excellent) developments in American gastronomy: Beer, at least good beer, is finally getting its due. Craft beer is now the fastest-growing part of the alcohol industry in the United States, outpacing sales of wine and hard liquor. In 2005, craft beer sales increased by 9 percent over the previous year, according to the Brewers Association, a trade group. Some individual breweries did even better. Goose Island Beer Company, a terrific Chicago outfit, saw sales grow by more than 20 percent last year. Goose Island brewmaster Greg Hall sees even more potential in the market. "Many people still don't think of beer as a luxury, like wine, even if it's a more affordable luxury," he says.
Restaurants that offer good food, great beer and modest environs have become another conspicuous trend—no secret to anyone who's tried to get a table on a Saturday night at New York City's top gastropub, the Spotted Pig. In fact, sophisticated diners across the country are choosing to eat in more casual settings, from Father's Office in Santa Monica, California (whose phone number is 310-393-BEER), to the Red Drum Gastropub, which has been packed since it opened in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, last spring with chef Ben Berryhill, formerly of Houston's Cafe Annie. "If you ask people my age if they'd rather eat in a restaurant or eat in a bar, I think most people would say they'd rather eat in a bar," Kahan says.
Recently, Madia invited a group of friends to his West Town apartment to sample potential dishes for the new restaurant and to determine the best beer pairings. Fabulously crunchy fried oysters with a side of creamy cucumbers met their match in a light, crisp pilsner, like La Brasserie de Saverne's Boris, from Alsace; a medium-bodied beer such as the apricot-inflected Belgian-style Le Baladin's Nora, from Italy, was the perfect partner for grit cakes with sweet-and-tangy beets. Luscious beer-braised chicken thighs with fava beans paired beautifully with a dark brew, such as Goose Island's rich, mildly sweet Belgian-style Pere Jacques. While everyone tasted the chicken, Greg Hall ambled over to Kahan, a meaty hand wrapped around a bottle of Pere Jacques. "Check this out," said Kahan, pointing to his own Pere Jacques bottle, whose label revealed the beer had been bottled that day. "How awesome is that?"
As much as Kahan seems well-positioned to take advantage of the enthusiasm for beer-friendly cuisine, one gets the feeling he would have done it even if the numbers didn't agree. After a successful run with two restaurants, he's ready to do what he wants, and what he wants is to open the sort of place where he'd want to eat on his nights off. As he says, "I've always thought I'd end up opening a diner—or a bar."
Andrew Putz is a senior editor at Philadelphia magazine who recently wrote about the quest for the perfect cheesesteak.