Shin Thompson's West Loop Japanese brasserie has a name—Kabocha
The story goes like this: Twelve years ago, Shin Thompson was in his second year at Kendall College—and broke. "Someone dared me to dunk my head in a rancid grease bucket," Thompson, who received a Michelin star in 2011 and 2012 for his Japanese-influenced cooking at Bonsoirée (now Table, Donkey and Stick, in which he is a part-owner), recalls. "People started throwing money in this pot," encouraging him to submerge his head in it for 15 seconds. "The pot got up to like 90 bucks," says Thompson, at which point his classmate, Ryan O'Donnell, walked in the room. "He said, 'Shin, I'll match the pot.'" But he didn't have any cash on him, so Thompson had to trust that he'd pay him later, bringing the total up to $200. "It's gonna be gross, but I'll take a couple of showers and it'll be worth it," Thompson remembers thinking. So he did it, getting the grease "really coated and caked in there," and rendering his instructor speechless. But the part of the story that's most important to Thompson: O'Donnell, "on his word, wrote me the check. When you're looking for a business partner, you think, How can you trust someone?" For Thompson, it came down to the grease bucket.
In the intervening years, O'Donnell had moved from the kitchen to the front of house, opening Gemini Bistro and Rustic House with chef Jason Paskewitz. Two years ago, he and his wife dined at Bonsoirée. "I was blown away by the food," O'Donnell recalls, and as he reconnected with Thompson, it became clear a potential partnership was on the horizon. "I was running Bonsoirée on my own for the past few years, and I knew how hard it was," Thompson says. "Now I have a family, and I'd like some more help." Moreover, Thompson wanted something bigger, something more approachable than a tasting menu, something in the center of it all—the West Loop—rather than on the fringes of Logan Square. "I felt like our location was a little bit of a hindrance," Thompson acknowledges. As originally reported in Eater, the duo found what they were looking for at 952 West Lake Street, across from the new Morgan CTA Station and around the corner from Next. "The city can't really grow to the North and South," O'Donnell explains. "But it can grow West," which is what O'Donnell foresees for the Fulton Market stretch of the West Loop where his and Thompson's Japanese brasserie will open. He admits there are also risks to opening in the neighborhood everyone wants a piece of. "It could get oversaturated, too hyped up. What we're trying not to do is get lost in the mix."
To that end, the pair's restaurant, named Kabocha, will be a merging of the type of brasserie environment O'Donnell has developed at Rustic House and Gemini Bistro with Thompson's distinctive Japanese-American-French cooking style that he was known for at Bonsoirée. (The name was inspired by a kabocha squash dish that was a favorite at a tasting dinner; it's also a nostalgic food for the chef, whose mom would cook it for him, not to mention "We love the color," Thompson says, and it will be used as an accent in the restaurant.) "The feel will be high-energy, lots of hustle and bustle...while still being elegant," says O'Donnell. Instead of a nine-course tasting menu, the menu will be à la carte. A few signature dishes will carry over from Thompson's time at Bonsoirée, such as the "Duck Duck Goose" (which pairs two duck preparations with gooseberry jam and foie gras) and the scallop motoyaki, a sea scallop with crab meat, baked in a scallop shell with a ponzu aioli. But there will be plenty of new menu items, from a selection of raw and crudo dishes (oysters, wagyu tartare) to handmade steamed dumplings with braised rabbit and Thai basil to entrées like whole loup de mer.
Accompanying the food: four draft lines, a large sake list (including one potentially on tap), a 60–75-label global wine list, and cocktails, including a salty-sour plum-wine-shochu-umeboshi-yuzu one designed by Thompson. Though the overall "brasserie" concept is a departure from Bonsoirée, there is an exception: a two-seat "chef's table," partially enclosed by sliding Japanese screens and a one-way mirror looking into the kitchen, that will offer a 9- or 10-course customized tasting menu with the option of sake/beer/wine pairings. The 100-seat space will feature an open kitchen, a 20-seat bar, an 8-seat raw bar and three large mixed-media works by artist Beth O'Donnell, Ryan's mother, on the walls. The artworks will be storyboards, subtly integrating elements from Ryan and Thompson's pasts, such as photos of Gemini Bistro and Bonsoirée. No mention, however, of a bucket.
Kabocha (952 W Lake St) is slated to open in spring 2013.