Uptown's newest restaurant, Libertine, to open its doors on July 16
Photo courtesy of Libertine
If the past few years have seen a boom in the North Loop's dining options, this year might be Uptown's time to shine. And with restaurants like Coup d'Etat and Hammer & Sickle , plus nearby World Street Kitchen and the newly opened Heyday , it's no surprise that the big dog himself, James Beard Award-winning chef Tim McKee, has set his sights on launching his newest concept, Libertine, right smack in the middle of it all.
McKee, who is best known for his prized fine-dining restaurant La Belle Vie, has been consulting with Parasole Restaurant Holdings for a while, and this new concept will take shape in what was once Uptown Cafeteria. The new concept is designed to better suit the maturing neighborhood, and we had a chance to chat with McKee himself about what exactly Libertine will be bringing into the mix.
Hot Dish: Can you start by telling us what Libertine is all about?
Tim McKee: Well, I really wanted to create a place that is as much a bar as it is a restaurant. Johnny Michaels is helping me on the cocktail program. We're getting a couple barrels of whiskey and we'll have a nice American whiskey list. Craft beers will have a real strong prominence and we'll have a few ciders on tap. We'll also have a variety of less expensive options like cans, smaller cocktails, and $3 whiskey shots and things like that.
As far as the food goes, we've been hearing that Libertine will be along the lines of a steakhouse. Is that accurate?
You know, that's kind of the way it's been characterized, but I wouldn't really say it's a steakhouse. We'll specialize in more or less forgotten cuts of meat. There's as many beef varieties as there are pork or lamb, so it really doesn't fit what you'd expect from a steakhouse. That said, it is meat-centric and you'll be able to get a lot of different kinds of cuts that you can't really find anymore.
Are those lesser known cuts an attempt to keep prices down?
Well, there's two things that you accomplish by going for lesser known cuts of meat. Number one, my drive is always for flavor and these are some of the most flavorful cuts of meat there are. The other thing is that you do get a reduced price point on some. The most expensive thing we're looking at offering is $24 and that's for a lamb saddle chop. What that is essentially is two lamb porterhouses, back to back, with the spine in the center. Then we've got the belly flaps that we tie up and it's a really, really great cut of meat that you'll never see anywhere.
It sounds like you've been really trying to take the neighborhood into consideration with the development of this restaurant.
The idea for this restaurant was developed with Uptown in mind. You know, it wasn't 'I really want to do this restaurant and here's a space it'll be perfect.' This was more of a 'what do I think would really work well enough in Uptown and what do I think the people in Uptown will gravitate towards.' The people that use Uptown are really in that 20- to 30-year-old group and a lot of times they're freshly out of college. It's not the cheapest place to live and they might not have the money to go to Manny's, but that shouldn't deny them the opportunity to get a great cut of meat.
So you're putting chef Stephan Hesse in charge, is that correct?
Oh yeah, Steve Hesse will be the executive chef over there, and he's been working with me for a long time. He was the corporate chef for Sushi Avenue when I helped do the Masu Restaurants, and I was able to get him on my team about a year and a half ago and he's been waiting for us to finally do this project. He's a great guy and we're lucky to have him!
And for the desserts?
They'll be done by Adrienne Odom and she's really phenomenal. Adrienne worked at Aquavit, then La Belle Vie, then Solera, and then back to La Belle Vie. She's developed a really great, kind of booze-oriented dessert list. She's doing a baba rum with grilled stone fruit, and a smoked chocolate tart with a bourbon caramel and smoked sea salt, and other things like that.
Have you learned any lessons from Cafeteria and the former Il Gatto that you're incorporating into Libertine?
You always hope. It's always scary, but the fact of the matter is, Cafeteria was doing all right. I mean, you could always be doing better, but it did a lot better than a lot of other restaurants do. But we've got an opportunity to do something that we think will make it even better.
How will Libertine transcend the traditional steakhouse, other than offering unique cuts of meat?
Well, the conversation has skewed toward the meat-centric aspect of the restaurant, but the important thing to remember is that's really just the second page of the menu. The first page of the menu, since we had the kind of heavy meat statement, we wanted to kind of temper by having a nice selection of oysters. We'll have East and West Coast oysters and we'll have a selection of oyster shooters. One of them will be a Bloody Mary shot, the other is a watermelon margarita shot, and the other is a cucumber gin fizz. We'll also be doing some charbroiled oysters with a variety of interesting flavors as well as some fried oysters with a number of preparations.
We'll also have a section of more bar food and smaller plates and a section of mostly vegetable preparations. Salads, but not conventional salads, and then some vegetable sides. You know, we talked about the 'steakhouse' feel, but there's actually a section that's mostly vegetarian with a few vegan options as well, and that's something you'll never see in a steakhouse!