Craft Urban restaurant brings some of the city to suburban Geneva, with a compact menu of bar snacks, seafood, great porchetta and classic indulgent desserts. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune)
Phil Vettel Contact Reporter
Craft Urban sounds like a whimsical name for a restaurant 44 miles west of Chicago, but owner Bernie Laskowski is quite serious about the name and its location.
“I wanted an urban feel, a city vibe,” he said. “I wanted to bring something unique to Geneva.”
Laskowski certainly understands city restaurants. He began his career at Everest and later put in time at Marche and mk. He was chef for the innovative Bin 36 in its original location and later opened Park Grill, the below-The-Bean restaurant in Millennium Park.
He’s no suburbanite-come-lately, having moved out west more than 15 years ago. And after leaving Park Grill in 2011, he opened a series of “shot-and-beer joints” in the south suburbs (which he later sold), and he and his wife, Cindy, created Cinderella Paleo, an upscale meal-service company based in Naperville.
“As time progressed,” he said, “I saw more and more demand for good, quality ingredients and innovative restaurants. Not as avant-garde as Alinea, but still.”
The economics appealed to Laskowski as well.
“When I looked at the cost structure, it only made sense,” he said. “The rents, relative to check averages, are very affordable.”
Thus was born Craft Urban, which opened in downtown Geneva in mid-November. With its brick walls, stylish lighting (a couple of arty chandeliers, horizontally mounted single-bulb lights), bare-wood tables and hammered-leather chairs, the restaurant would feel at home in any city neighborhood. The front lounge offers gleaming white subway tiles and matching tufted-leather bar seats; most of the space is given to the dining room, which has carpeting (that cuts down on ambient noise, though I wouldn’t call the place quiet), and a colorful mural by Caesar Perez of Ava Grey takes up the entire west wall. Another artist, Josh Shultz, designed the comic-book decoupaged restroom walls.
The compact menu, managed adroitly by executive chef Andrew Sikkelerus, skips appetizers in favor of bar snacks and a section of “breads and spreads.” Among the former are tempura-fried cheese curds, along with bread-and-butter pickles and a mildly spiced red-pepper dip; and a Gruyere-based, gratineed fondue with crisp apple slices and brioche toast. The latter category embraces the gourmet-toast fad without using the term; there is indeed an avocado version (with sunflower and pomegranate seeds), but also a “schmear” that combines chicken-liver mousse and pork rillettes with a nice spike of mustard, a creamed-spinach and mushroom combo with aged Parmesan, and a very nice combination of ricotta, grape mostarda and La Quercia prosciutto.
Sikkelerus offers a nice assortment of seafood options, bringing in wild striped bass, Rushing Waters rainbow trout, king salmon (recently added, enhanced with sesame and horseradish) and farm-raised Texas shrimp. The shrimp are the stars of the shrimp and grits, very prettily presented, and the rainbow trout, in a classic lemon-caper sauce, is one of the nicest dishes on the menu.
The star of the meaty options is the porchetta, a dish created by Laskowski’s son, Sebastian. It’s basically a classy pork and beans, placing rolled pork shoulder on a bed of slow-cooked cannellini beans with tomatoes, carrots and onions, and it’s perfect winter-weather fare. Brick-roasted chicken arrives with an appealingly crisp crust and a pile of chewy fregola, a pasta shaped like little beads.
Beef lovers can choose between the short ribs, sitting above sweet corn and topped with fried kale, and butcher’s beef, which consists of teres major (tender shoulder cut) sourced from Slagel Farms, arranged in wide medallions over potatoes and root vegetables.
Desserts are classic indulgences. Best of the bunch is the chocolate mousse, a sort of reconsidered s’more topped with toasted marshmallow, graham-cracker crumble and sea salt. Mom’s Pound Cake, which comes from Laskowski’s mother-in-law, is thick, toasted and smothered in berries and sweet yogurt cream. Tall apple pie, and the even taller hot-fudge sundae, are exactly how you’d want these desserts to be.
Friendly and unaffected service is a strength.
Beverage options include close to a dozen cocktails, mostly classics (such as a well-made Old-Fashioned) and one or two clever signatures, including a tasty, boozy eggnog that I imagine won’t remain on the list very long. Wines by the glass run $9 to $12; half the wines on the 24-bottle list are less than $75.
Craft Urban has a late-night ramen offering, beginning at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, augmented by half-price canned beers. Though open to all, the late-night menu functions as de facto industry nights. Another advantage to suburban dining (besides proximity and free parking) is that the wee hours arrive early.
211 James St., Geneva
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Main courses $19-$34
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.