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GOOD TO BE GREEN English pea bisque with pea pods, candied pine nuts and chive blossom

Branching Out

by Lisa Shames | Photography by Anthony Tahlier | CS magazine | June 2, 2016

It’s not standard procedure to open a restaurant review with a caveat, but Arbor’s needs one: Don’t expect to find the exact dishes described on these pages when you go to the Logan Square restaurant. That limited-edition quality, however, is part of the charm of this innovative spot from owner-partners Leonard Hollander (head chef) and Chad Little (beverage program and operations manager).

Part coffee bar, cafe, restaurant, lounge and workspace, Arbor, which is located on the second floor of the Green Exchange, an early 20th century factory transformed into a LEED-certified office building with plenty of green-leaning businesses inside, wears many hats. Looking for a caterer? Arbor does that too, often in the lovely event space adjacent to the 70-seat glass-enclosed restaurant that channels Scandinavia and Japan in its simple interior design. There’s a small farm out back that provides the restaurant with 60-plus varieties of fruit, vegetables and herbs, while an apiary on the roof supplies honey.

But it’s with the Midwestern Omakase on Thursdays and Fridays, the only nights for now that Arbor is open for dinner, that things really get interesting. Sure, you could just order from the small rotating walk-in menu and try dishes such as grilled halibut ribs with fried basmati. But why would you when, with a couple of emails, texts or, as its website states, “spontaneous conversation” with the owners covering likes, dislikes and dietary restrictions, you could have a three-, five- or seven-course meal created just for you? Which is made even better when said correspondence from the restaurant ends with “This will be fun and tasty!”

To start off my five-course omakase, there was warm housemade raisin, date and sunflower bread with black currant honey and two butters: spring onion and the weird-sounding but totally delicious coffee. In retrospect, I should’ve saved some bread for the next course. It would have come in handy in getting every last drop of the creamy asparagus and sweet pea soup poured tableside over a sheep-milk fritter coated in bits of marconas. It was pure spring in a bowl even if the weather that day said otherwise.

When creating all the dishes at Arbor, including the grain bowl at breakfast, hearty sandwiches at lunch and the more intricate ones for the omakase, they ask themselves three questions, says Hollander: “Is it responsibly produced? Are we excited about it? Is it delicious?” Limiting in some ways, perhaps, but not when it comes to incorporating global flavors, as proven by the next course of Korean pancake topped with ramp greens, soft quail egg, fermented-garlic mayo and chile peanuts. Asparagus kimchee added some kick, but not in an in-your-face kind of way. Instead, this dish, and really all the food at Arbor, has more of a comforting slant to it, which fits perfectly with the casual setting and laid-back service. Hollander feels so strongly about creating “an immense feeling of comfort” that he hopes to soon have a ticket-style form of payment. “I like the idea that when you’re done, you get up and go,” he says. “The bill can introduce thoughts and feelings that can conflict with an amazing dining experience.”

That sit-back-and-relax vibe, though, doesn’t impede Hollander’s creativity. The next dish, served in a small glass jar, paired gin-cured salmon pieces with a ramp ghee-poached egg, absinthe creme fraiche and pickled shallots, and was a wonderful mix of flavors and textures. Fish eggs added a nice saltiness. “This could be breakfast,” said my dining companion as she dredged the slice of housemade caraway bread into the jar. If you’re lucky, I thought.

Our last savory course featured two fish preparations, including crispy-skinned arctic char in a puddle of creamed amaranth; lightly charred spring onions brought some smokiness to the dish. The rockfish leaned slightly sweet and came with a carrot pancake and pickled raisins. I would be happy to eat either of those dishes again.

Dessert was also a delicious twofer (that is, if you bring along a plate-sharing companion): a dark chocolate mousse updated with peanut-malt cream and strawberries slow-cooked in moscatel and honey, and pineapple cake with coconut cream and banana caramel. Both provided just the right balance of sweetness and decadence to end the meal.

The beverage side at Arbor also offers options, and while you could just get a glass of wine or a cocktail, I’d recommend one of the three beverage pairings ($25, $35 and $45, three-, five- and seven-courses respectively). With a focus on small producers that incorporate organic and biodynamic practices—an elegant 2014 Domaine Skouras Salto Moschofilero Wild Yeast from Greece, for instance—the pairings here add another personal element to the experience

Bespoke dining? That’s just our size.

2545 W. Diversey Ave., 312.866.0795

Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.-Fri., dinner Thu.-Fri.
Midwestern Omakase: three courses $35-$50; five courses $55-$75; seven courses $75-$100
Reservations highly recommended

On a Roll
That strange-looking contraption near the entrance of Arbor that looks like an antique wheelchair is actually a custom-built coffee cart used in the restaurant’s early days.

Dairy Kings
We weren’t the only ones smitten with Arbor’s housemade coffee butter. Hollander said plans are in the works to make it available in the retail market in the near future.

Table Manners
While Arbor can accommodate various diner requests for the Midwestern Omakase, everyone at the table needs to order it and the same number of courses.