UPDATE: An eviction notice was spotted on Alain's door the week of Sept. 24 and calls to the restaurant have not been answered.
1355 S. Michigan Ave. 312-922-1186
Rating: 2 (out of 4) Give it some time
What happens when a Cameroon-born chef meets a Chicago Bear?
In the case of chef Alain Njike and Bears defensive end Israel Idonije, they become friends and eventually open a restaurant together. The restaurant subsequently announced plans to reopen, but "for rent" signs on the space indicate otherwise.
The two met in 2009 when Idonije taped football and fine dining show "Game Time Dine" with TV host D.C. Crenshaw at Park 52, the Hyde Park restaurant where Njike worked. They found they had West African backgrounds in common—Idonije is from neighboring country Nigeria—and became fast friends. When Njike was ready to break out on his own with a restaurant combining his love for contemporary American fare with his classical French training and Cameroonian heritage, it was Idonije and another friend, Chad McClennan, who became his business partners.
Njike's self-titled restaurant, Alain's, doesn't serve traditional African cuisine, but it does hint at his heritage and follows the African philosophy of "eating where you live," he said. So like the many chefs enamored with farm-to-table cooking, Njike relies on meats and produce from Midwest farms to inspire his dishes. After a reservations-only trial in early August had passed, I stopped in to see what Njike was bringing to the table for dinner.
This isn't Bears country
Idonije clearly didn't insist on Da Bear-izing the decor. The restaurant may be a few blocks from Soldier Field, but this is no sports memorabilia-decked man cave. Instead, Njike's roots shine through: One of his own paintings hangs on the wall, and the carved wood near the bathrooms was a gift from his father. He also brought in local artist Lynn Basa to decorate the bar with a colorful, swirling mural that soon will become a mosaic.
Everything has a story, but you might not know it
After interviewing Njike, it was clear that he's passionate about channeling his life story into his dishes—but I can't say I got that from my meal. Dinner started with a plate of fried dough, which my date and I happily munched on without knowing it was a Cameroonian street food that Njike likens toItaly'sbiscotti. Our server was sweet, but didn't share any background about the dish's Cameroonian touches, and though Njike made his round to chat with a few tables, he didn't visit mine. And so my date and I ate our tender rabbit ($22) and perfectly cooked but under-seasoned wagyu beef ($28) served atop what we assumed were sort-of runny mashed potatoes. As it turns out, Njike calls them Bamileke potatoes, named for the farmers of western Cameroon and inspired by their technique of tater-cooking. Rather than boiling and then mashing peeled potatoes, he leaves them unpeeled and then steams, purees and chills them before warming in a pan with a semi-soft cheese fromFrance'sBasque region. Because potatoes are so important to the Bamileke people, they're not relegated to a side dish but instead pool across the entire plate—which would have been nice to keep in mind while I was eating them. Njike's also fiercely loyal to organic ingredients and Midwest farms, but that wasn't mentioned on the menu or by the staff, either.
Try the Eto'o fish
Haven't heard of it? That's because Eto'o isn't a species of fish, but rather the last name of Njike's friend Samuel Eto'o, a fellow Cameroonian who also happens to be a star soccer player. Njike takes the freshest fish he can get—recently it's been snapper or skate—and serves it seasoned and blackened in the style of Cameroon's Bassa people as an homage to Eto'o. It wasn't on the menu during my visit, but Njike promises it'll be a staple from here on out.
If you're not a wine drinker, hold off
Unless you always order wine with dinner, I'd wait a few weeks before trying Alain's. Right now, the only beverages available are wine, lemonade and water. (I watched one couple sit down for a few minutes and then leave without ordering. Maybe they really wanted a Coke?) The brief list of vino by the glass and bottle features picks from France and California, plus the refreshing Lion's Lair Family Reserve white from South Africa. More wine, beer and a full bar are on the way in the coming weeks.
Don't panic, vegetarians.
The all-meat entree list makes it look like there aren't any options for vegetarians, but if you scan back up to the appetizer section, there are two veggie-friendly apps that are also served in entree portions. Ratatouille ($16), a traditional French stew, is full of ripe zucchini, asparagus and dried cherries, with a hit of spice (As to exactly what spices, Njike wouldn't confess, but he said he plans to take trips back to Africa every few months to bring back spices to use at the restaurant). Apple and beet risotto ($23) is satisfyingly creamy and cheesy, but it's without the obvious presence of either apples or beets.
Bottom line: I can't help but compare Alain's to other South Loop newcomers with entrees in the $20 range, and the truth is that it doesn't yet measure up to nearby gems such as Acadia. With some fine-tuning of dishes and more of an effort from staff to clue diners into the special stories behind them, it has the potential to grow into a neighborhood favorite.
About Alain ...
You could say that running a restaurant is in Alain Njike's blood: He grew up in a restaurant family in Cameroon and went on to study hotel management in Paris. "When I first moved to the United States, I didn't even know how to speak English," he said. His first job in Chicago was as a dishwasher at Hinky Dink Kenna's, a restaurant that operated below Marshall Field's. He went on to work in both kitchen and front-of-the-house gigs at Charlie Trotter's, the Peninsula Hotel, Nomi and Park 52 before opening Alain's in the South Loop on Aug. 3.
Also new nearby ...
Alain's is just a few steps away from fellow South Loop newcomers Square One and City Tavern. Read our mini-reviews of both spots at redeyechicago.com.
Reviews are unannounced and meals are paid for by RedEye. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeats