Roe, roe, roe: Chicago’s Heritage brings Black Sea to Lake Michigan
by Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed
FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator is holding its 1st annual Taste of the GFA fundraiser on October 25, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at 1871 Chicago in the Merchandise Mart. In lead up to the big event, Good Food News is presenting profiles of some of the exciting and innovative chefs — such as Alec Sherman of Chicago’s Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar, profiled below — who are creating dishes for the event using ingredients produced by Accelerator graduates. Only a few tickets remain for Taste of the GFA, and they can be purchased at the event website.
Heritage Restaurant and Caviar Bar features delicacies from Eastern Europe. Its tagline is “Born of the Black Sea. Made in Chicago.” So it is appropriate that Heritage is located in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood… sort of.
Heritage is actually located a very short walk west from Ukrainian Village, in Humboldt Park, a largely Latino community. But it is a few blocks from the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, the Ukrainian National Museum and Saints Volodymyr & Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church. And while the ethnic composition of the neighborhood, located about three miles west of downtown Chicago, is more mixed than it used to be, there are still many residents who long for the days when the hearty foods of Eastern Europe seemed to be everywhere — and caviar was commonplace.
Wait… caviar was a relatively inexpensive Eastern European comfort food? Let Alec Sherman, chef de cuisine at Heritage, explain. “It’s crazy how many people come in and say, ‘I grew up eating caviar,’” Sherman said. ”The lady across the street said, ‘I feel like I dreamed you guys into existence and somehow you guys are across the street. We grew up eating caviar.’ It was so much cheaper back in the day, it wasn’t on the pedestal.”
Winning the lottery wouldn’t hurt if you are going to indulge in the higher-end, harder-to-get varieties of fish roe: Gold Osetra, in the 15-gram portion recommended by Sherman, goes for $125 at Heritage. But for people on tighter budgets who want to enjoy the experience, there are options, such as wild-caught Golden Whitefish from Michigan or Bow Fin from Louisiana, which go for $10 per 15-gram serving.
While caviar is featured in the restaurant’s name, other varieties of seafood shine at Heritage, including oysters, the first thing you’d see on the menu. In fact, oysters play the starring role in the dish Sherman and the Heritage team are preparing for Taste of the GFA, the fundraiser for FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator program, which will be held at the 1871 business incubator in the Merchandise Mart on the evening of October 25. [More information and the few tickets remaining are available at the event site.]
Not just any oysters, but oysters with a tie to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Old 1871 oysters are sourced in Virginia by Fortune Fish & Gourmet distributors. Back in the late 19th century, oysters such as these were packed in ice and shipped to Chicago by train — and legend has it that firefighters supped on these oysters before battling the conflagration that burned down most of what is today’s downtown Chicago.
“How did they get it, how did it stay fresh?” Sherman queried. “With the [Taste of the GFA] event in the auditorium at 1871, I saw that and said, ‘We’re doing the oysters.’”
Like all the chefs participating in Taste of the GFA, Sherman was challenged to use ingredients produced by entrepreneur graduates of the first four cohorts of the Good Food Accelerator program (cohort 5 gets under way in a few weeks). Sherman is using three, one each from Karma Kombucha and Here products, both 2017 graduates of cohort 3, and Living Water Farms, a 2015 graduate of the first Accelerator cohort.
According to Sherman, the kombucha will be combined with shallots, lemon and black pepper, “just like you would with a normal mignonette” sauce for oysters, “but it will have the acidity from the kombucha.” Here’s beet, apple and ginger cold-pressed juice will be turned into a gel (“another texture similar to the oyster”), and Living Water’s Bulls Blood micro greens will be sprinkled on top.
The seeds for Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar on Chicago’s North Side were planted on the South Side. Guy W. Meikle, now Heritage’s Executive Chef and President, previously was chef at Nana organic restaurant in Chicago’s Bridgeport community when Sherman came to work there as his first job after culinary school. (Meikle’s Eastern European roots are Czech, and Nana is located just south of the Pilsen neighborhood, once the hub for Chicago’s Czech community.)
Sherman moved on, and his career path took him to Ceres’ Table, an Italian restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood; Red Haven, a farm to table restaurant in East Lansing, Michigan (Sherman grew up in Lansing); Southport and Irving in the Lakeview section of Chicago; and A10 in Hyde Park. But he and Meikle kept in touch, and Sherman jumped at the opportunity when Meikle invited him to join the team at Heritage, which opened to positive reviews in August 2017.
Sherman is of Polish background, so it was natural for him to join Meikle in the quest to bring a fine-dining flair to Chicago’s Eastern European culinary tradition. “We have a lot of our families’ traditions and influences in the dishes that we do. For example, we have the duck dish that [Meikle] grew up eating that his mom and grandma would cook, and the pierogis that we kind of come back and forth with use my grandma’s pierogi dough recipe. The fillings change, but they usually have cottage cheese in them. We always did cottage cheese and scallions.” Heritage is big on fermented foods, and homey items such as Braunschweiger sausage often make an appearance.
Yet some surprising entries do pop up. Banchan, an appetizer of housemade pickles and kimchi? Lobster mushrooms with kombu dashi and silken tofu? It turns out these ideas are generated by Shane Zimmerman, the director of research and development at Heritage, a Korean-American who was adopted by a Polish family in Nebraska. Some of the dishes he designs play with the KoPo (Korean-Polish) concept first popularized by Won Kim of Kimski — who happens to be another featured chef at Taste of the GFA (read about Won Kim and Kimski on Good Food News).
One thing that ties together this variety on Heritage’s menu is Sherman’s devotion to local sourcing, which goes back to the beginnings of his culinary career. Sherman is a familiar figure at Green City Market, Chicago’s biggest farmers market, and considers many of the regional farmers there (and others from whom he sources) as friends. “We’re getting the freshest product that we can coming from the closest people, but we’re also helping these smaller farmers, all these people I know consider my friends because it’s been 10 years of showing up at the market,” Sherman said.
Some of the ingredients are hyperlocal, as they are grown in the restaurant’s garden by Planted Chicago and owner Jen Rosenthal, who Sherman got to know when she was growing vegetables for A10 on an urban farm plot (A10 closed earlier this year). Rosenthal is a member of the Good Food Accelerator’s Associate Board, which is producing the Taste of the GFA event, and she invited Sherman to participate. (Meet the Associate Board members on the Good Food Accelerator website.)
What Heritage makes with those ingredients is a somewhat refined version of the heavy, rib-sticking, belt-loosening food once common in Eastern European neighborhoods around Chicago. But Sherman promises that no one will ever leave still hungry.
“That’s what Eastern European is about, making you feel stuffed and feel at home and feel comfort,” Sherman said. “We want that to carry over from what we ate to what we’re serving. Our plates are not that big, but you’re definitely going home full, for sure.”
The Taste of the GFA fundraiser, October 25 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at 1871 Chicago, provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator while tasting delicious samples from graduate Fellows and from some of Chicago’s most innovative restaurants. Tickets are going fast, so buy yours now!