WEST LOOP — Years in the making, celebrity Chef Rick Bayless' West Loop debut is almost here.
Cruz Blanca will not take reservations, as the taco and beer counters are both walk-up, but Leña Brava is now taking reservations online.
Inspired by Baja California's live-fire cooking and world-class wines, Leña Brava — ”ferocious wood” in Spanish — will feature seafood, a raw bar and mezcal and wines from the vibrant region.
The 75-seat restaurant, at 900 W. Randolph St., will serve up a raw bar selection with spicy aguachiles, unique ceviches and wood-fired dishes.
Bayless said he's always "been crazy — obsessed, even — about cooking with live fire."
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the northern part of Baja California over the last decade. It’s such an exciting place right now with world-class wineries and unforgettable seafood,” Bayless said. “Leña is the place where it all comes together.”
Husband-and-wife team Fred and Lisa Despres will helm the kitchen. Fred Despres, previously of Japanese restaurant Arami, collaborated with Bayless' Frontera team at a pop-up event, a mashup of styles that produced some of the best food he's ever made, Bayless said. Lisa Despres was a chef at Topolobampo, Bayless’ high-end Mexican restaurant.
Jill Gubesch, longtime wine director at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, will oversee Leña’s wine program, considered to be one of the largest collections of Mexican wine in an American restaurant, with a special focus on wines from the Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s Napa Valley.
Spirits director Jeff Walters, formerly of Mercadito, will work with dozens of tequilas and more than 100 different varieties of mezcal, including a house spirit produced in Oazaca especially for the restaurant.
Beers at Cruz Blanca, Rick Bayless' new brewery and taquería slated to open in May in the West Loop. [Cruz Blanca]
Cruz Blanca Cervecería
Next door to Leña Brava, Bayless and longtime business partner Manny Valdes will open Cruz Blanca Cervecería, a craft brewery with tasting room and taquería at 904 W. Randolph St.
Inspired by Emil Dercher, the brewer who left France and made his way to Mexico City, where he sold beers under the Cruz Blanca label, the new Cruz Blanca will feature European craft beers with a Mexican touch, Bayless said. The malts, honey and botanicals used to brew are all procured in and around Chicago, he said.
Jacob Sembrano, former head brewer at Goose Island Brewpub, will manage the 10-barrel brewing system to produce beers for Cruz Blanca and other Bayless restaurants.
The brewery's walk-up taquería is inspired by Oaxaca’s taco corridor, where meats are grilled over a wood-fire and served with handmade tortillas and fresh salsas.
The tacos at Cruz Blanca are "DIY," Bayless said. Guests at Cruz Blanca will choose their main filling —half-cured flank tasajo, red chile pork cecina, chorizo, chicken or portobello— to be piled on a big beer tray with sides of wood-grilled onions and peppers, smoky Oaxacan pasilla salsa, avocado salsa, crunchy pico de gallo, grilled nopal cactus, limey cucumbers and fresh-made tortillas.
“Eating do-it-yourself tacos like this is one of my favorite things to do in Oaxaca, though we never get utensils there,” Bayless said. “At Cruz Blanca, we’ve decided to follow the Oaxacan dining style with tray service, but we’ll also be nice and offer a utensil set too.”
Cruz Blanca will be open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 a.m- 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and closed Sunday and Monday.
Leña Brava will be open 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 5:30-9 p.m. Sunday.
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