Chef/restaurateur Justin Cucci doesn't do subtle. From the "gastro-brothel" excess of Ophelia's Electric Soapbox to the reclaimed mortuary mishmash of Linger, Cucci's restaurants turn unlikely spaces into full-on barrages of all of the senses. His newest, El Five, is no exception, converting the fifth floor of a LoHi office building into a riotous trans-Mediterranean tapas bar bedecked in vintage Arabic movie posters and glam finishes.
Cucci's Edible Beats restaurant group also includes Root Down and Vital Root, so El Five is the "fifth story" in the family, Cucci notes. When he saw the initial blueprints for the restaurant, they were simply labeled "L5", so he knew he'd found the name for his newest concept, switching the L to El as a nod to the menu's Spanish inspiration. "Half of the menu is tapas-inspired," Cucci explains, "but there's more to the Mediterranean than just Italy, Greece, France and Spain."
The restaurateur notes that Italy and France, especially, get more than their fair share of menu space in the U.S., so he looked to Morocco, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel (where he lived when he was in high school) and other southern Mediterranean regions for inspiration.So you'll find merguez sausage in North African style, chicken kofta skewers (shaped into pert meatballs rather than the typical, less-appetizing cylinders) and lamb ribs spiced to conjure the flavor of shawarmas. Straying well outside the region, Chinese-style soup dumplings offer a comforting surprise; they're filled with hearty matzah-ball soup straight from Grandma's kitchen.
Paellas seem like a safe Spanish bet, but in keeping with the Edible Beats style, the three options here have been tinkered with to maximize textures and flavors. The vegetarian version relies on a lentil and grain blend to replace the rice, while the sausage and rabbit paella's rice is wild and black rather than the standard saffron-stained white rice.
Cucci says that his time living in Israel made him aware of the simplicity of cooking in the Mediterranean region. "They fish it out of the sea or they grow it, and that's it," he states. That philosophy carries over to the selection of ingredients on chef Jeremy Kittelson's menu, which will maintain a core group of dishes while introducing new items with the seasons.
Just like its siblings, the beverage roster at El Five, designed by Ky Belk, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the food. Spain has become known for its fruit- and herb-infused gin and tonics, so Belk presents a variety of bright concoctions, bobbing with different combinations of mango, strawberry, thyme and cucumber (not all in the same glass). Belk also notes that water-waste reduction is important to Edible Beats, so he's focused his attention on eliminating the overuse of ice; cocktails shaken with ice and then strained onto more ice are the big culprit, and he's also experimenting with ambient-temperature cocktails.
Of note behind the bar are high-tech infusers that look like elaborate Boy Scout canteens, The glass canisters with their tiny pour spouts miraculously hold arrangements of sliced fruits, herbs and dried spices like a ship in a bottle. The devices were invented by Chicago Modernist bar the Aviary and are now sold for about $100 a pop. While the Aviary calls the device a porthole infuser, at El Five it's known as El Supremo.
When you go, here are few things to note. The entrance to El Five is in an elevator lobby located behind Sushi Ronin (so you'll feel like you're walking into the building's parking garage). If you suffer at all from acrophobia, steer clear of the stunning outdoor patio, which feels much higher than its fifth-floor location would indicate, since the building's hillside perch puts it well above all but downtown's highest skyscrapers. If you go for happy hour, which runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., you might be sharing an elevator with employees of the businesses on levels two, three and four before you reach your destination on level five. The restaurant opens to the public on Wednesday, May 3, and will be open every night but Mondays.
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For more photos, see our complete El Five slideshow.