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Bread & Wine Turns One, Preps for Chef Swap and Little Sibling

By Patty Wetli | February 13, 2013 3:26pm

IRVING PARK — In a twist on the pop-up concept, iNG Restaurant and Chef Homaro Cantu will trade kitchens with Bread & Wine's Curtis Gamble for a two-night stand in March, a bit like Bjork swapping venues with The Lumineers.

Cantu, who also operates the much-lauded Moto, has a reputation for zapping food with lasers. Gamble's menu, by contrast, features duck balls, sliced pig face and heritage guinea hogs, an endangered food he likens to an heirloom tomato.

The switch will occur March 12 and 13.

"I would never call what we do fine dining," said Gamble, an Ohio native who honed his modern-yet-traditional approach as part of Pittsburgh's burgeoning dining scene.

Still Bread & Wine's "elevated Midwest cuisine" is ambitious for a neighborhood joint that opened little more than a year ago on an aggressively non-trendy stretch of Irving Park Road.

"Part of the neighborhood isn't ready for us," said co-owner Lisa Fosler Kelly, who grew up in Nebraska but has lived in Irving Park for 13 years. "Mostly people want to give us a hug. They say, 'Thank you so much for coming here.' Then there's another group that wants a burger joint."

To be fair, Bread & Wine, 3732 W. Irving Park Rd., does have a burger on its menu, albeit one served with red onion jam, and the restaurant proudly includes Schlitz among its beverage offerings.

Though dismissive of the "farm-to-table" label so often slapped on his cooking
as little more than an industry tagline  — "It's like 'organic,' it's a gimmick" — Gamble does work primarily with local producers and even forages a bit in nearby parks.

Whole-animal meals, like its Valentine's Day menu featuring lamb or a New Year's Eve menu that focused on veal, not only allows Gamble, who does his own butchering, to hold down costs — "We can get an entire lamb for five dollars a pound" — but it also pushes him to develop creative dishes using lesser cuts of meat.

Kidney and liver are Bread & Wine staples, as are the sausages and bacon made on site. An extensive charcuterie menu has become the restaurant's calling card.

Kelly, who runs the restaurant's wine program, and co-owner Jennifer Wisniewski are the first to credit Gamble with the restaurant's success.

"It's not 'If you build it, they will come,'" said Kelly. "They'll come if the food f**king rocks."

To date, Bread & Wine has built a loyal following almost solely on the strength of word of mouth. Major restaurant critics, like the Chicago Tribune's Phil Vettel, have yet to write about it.

"We can't put our thumb on why," said Wisniewski. "It drives so much business, it would mean a lot."

Which begs the question, if Bread & Wine is still gaining traction, why is the team preparing to welcome an still unnamed Bread & Wine Jr.?

"In this weird, twisted way, I think expansion will help us," said Wisniewski, who shoulders marketing, PR and front-of-house duties. A second location will force the team to think more globally, she explained, "instead of nitpicking everything."

Though coy about the location for what Gamble calls a "loud and abrasive little brother for Bread & Wine" — likely "off the Blue Line" was all DNAinfo.com Chicago could extract by way of a clue — the chef is more than eager to divulge the concept.

"Like a dive bar but mind-blowing," he said. "Almost peanuts on the floor," with a bar menu focused more intently on craft beers and "super-American" foods that could include soft serve ice cream.

Clearly this is a group willing to take risks.

Kelly, a lawyer by trade, and Wisniewski — who are often mistaken for each other, for no other reason than both are six-feet tall — had never owned a restaurant. (Wisniewski, a sometime model, did help establish ex-husband Michael Nahabedian's Cafe Absinthe, Green Dolphin and Naha.)

They hired Gamble, an outsider crashing Chicago's insular restaurant scene, via Craigslist. They committed to Irving Park, insistent on introducing more adventurous dining to a strip heavy on tattoo parlors and auto parts shops.

"[My friends] all tried to talk me out of it," said Wisniewski, who grew up in nearby Sauganash.

It shouldn't have worked — a restaurant hatched by owners who met during their daughters' playdate — but it did.

"I get prouder and prouder all the time," said Wisniewski.

Snagging that coveted review from the Tribune or the Michelin Bib Gourmand would be icing on the cake, Gamble said.

"When they do get here," said Wisniewski, "we're so much better than when we started."