Restaurants, salon spring up in River District

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11503163985264.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11503164196331.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11503164698553.jpg’, ‘Photos by Mike Rudzinski’, ‘A number of new establishments are making their debuts this spring in the downtown River District. Chris Hummel (top photo) practices his art on a customer at Fuzion Studios, which offers tattoo artists, hair stylists and nail technicians available from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Middle, chef Paul Sletten stands on the patio at Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio. Fred Savat (bottom photo) enjoys a glass of wine inside Kuma’s Asian Bistro.’);

The downtown Rockford River District has been blossoming with the growth of three hip new businesses on the east side of the river.

With a rainy spring nearing an end, now is the time to check out the budding Kuma’s Asian Bistro, the casually cool Brio Restaurant, Wine Bar and Patio, or the cutting-edge Fuzion Salon.

All three businesses have radically different themes and purposes, but share a commitment to the Rockford community and an investment in the continuing success of the River District.

Not surprisingly, all three cater to the up-and-coming Rockford: casual, fun and affordable.

“They’re having a great impact downtown,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the River District Association.

Wheeler has seen a revitalization in the District the past 20 years. These businesses have added culture and life to downtown, something she said she hopes will continue to grow.

“We want more of a 24/7 atmosphere in the next five to 10 years,” Wheeler said.

Restaurants such as Kuma’s Asian Bistro seem to be headed in that direction. Owner and Executive Chef Kuma Kim has prepared a warm community atmosphere where she serves her own special breed of Asian Cuisine.

Originally from South Korea, Kim has drawn from Korean, Thai, Japanese and Chinese cuisine, with her own style and flair.

The result was surprisingly pleasing to the palette. The average dish at Asian restaurants can be a gamble for most Americans who have not tried them before. Not so at Kuma’s.

Kim has managed to make adventurous dishes into elegant, sumptuous main courses that will please everyone.

Customers should not have to worry about liking a dish, but more about which one to try. Although the menu does not list which dishes have spice, the staff has a good idea of how hot a dish will be and the proper way to eat your entrée.

The Bulgogi, or Korean BBQ Beef, was an excellent house favorite that included rice and kimchi. Be prepared for large portions, though—the dishes have a tendency to be filling.

Although Kuma’s has a casual, but expensive, look to it, most entrées run less than $10. Most customers will find themselves spending more on the good wine selection and appetizers than on entrées. The welcoming, yet formal, atmosphere stays quiet enough for conversation, making Kuma’s a great place for couples and casual adult dining.

“We wanted a high-class look and feel with reasonable prices,” said John Correll, manager of Kuma’s.

Fred Savet, Kuma Kim’s fiancé and owner of the building, said they chose Rockford because of the city’s up-and-coming status. Originally from Chicago, Savet said he plans to move into the space above the restaurant and into the changing downtown.

Kuma’s has not been the only place on State Street to show faith in the downtown area. Just up the street at 515 E. State St. is Brio, which has transformed Bacchus, a Rockford favorite.

Brio owner and chef Paul Sletten, 28, has worked hard to change the atmosphere of the old Bacchus into a much more fun, affordable restaurant.

“We’ve taken the intimidation out of it in terms of price,” Sletten said.

At first glance, the new restaurant has the same feel of Octane, or another hip young hangout. But talk with the very casual, very laid-back Sletten as he mingles with his customers, and it becomes apparent where the restaurant gets its character.

Sletten, clad in jeans and sporting an easygoing attitude, has made this restaurant a hangout for all of Rockford.

“I would hate to cater to one group and be bored with them,” Sletten said. “I’d rather have somebody with a mohawk sitting next to a bowtie.”

Like Kuma’s, Brio could be misinterpreted as an expensive, high-class restaurant. But Sletten has divided his restaurant into a wine bar, restaurant and patio to make for a diverse crowd and a diverse menu. The Tapas-based menu has centered on single entrées the server brings out one at a time. The word Tapas refers to small, savory dishes, the center of the menu. But the best part of Brio has to be its focus on sharing food.

Mom always said not to eat off other people’s plates, but at the Brio, that’s the main idea. A dish, such as Caribbean Chicken Skewers with Grilled Pineapple, will be served and then shared among the diners.

Sletten has focused the main course in each dish instead of adding large side dishes that cost extra. The menu was amazingly versatile, offering high-priced dishes in the $15 range with a selection of wines to a much cheaper “Munchies” menu with inventive appetizers.

Fresh flowers on every table, smaller portions of food and a personalized touch make this a great restaurant and hangout. If nothing else, try the “mashed potato martinis,” and the delicious soft-shell crab while it’s still in season. The menu has been aimed at ordering several dishes and then trying them all. The Brio also has a nice bar atmosphere, similar to Bacchus, that’s open until 2 a.m.

Sletten also has some more plans up his sleeve. Next month, Sletten plans to open a new restaurant a few storefronts away at 509 E. State St., called Cru. Cru will be a wine and cheese bar and café with Damien Hunter as restaurant manager.

Cru will have a similar theme to Brio with a laid-back attitude. Sletten said the café will seat approximately 30, and he hopes to do most of the serving.

The café will be open for lunch, offering artistian olives and cheeses, gourmet sandwiches, salads and “soon-to-be-world-famous creme puffs,” Sletten said. A selection of wines will be served by the glass, as well as domestic and imported micro-brewed beer. The wine, beer and cheese bar will remain open later in the evening.

Restaurants have not been the only new hits downtown, however. Fuzion Studios at 402 E. State St. has brought a fresh, alternative culture to the River District with its hair salon and tattoo parlor. Co-owned by Chris Hummel, 30, and Brent Beehler, 28, Fuzion aims at offering an authentic, custom studio for the Rockford area.

The studio offers tattoo artist, hair stylists and nail technicians available from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Hummel, a tattoo artist for nine years, hopes to offer the studio’s services to customers who want something not run-of-the-mill. In fact, the four tattoo artists draw their own designs and customize almost everything.

The Salon opened in January 2006 and has been growing. Beehler and Hummel have added a body-piercing parlor to the studio, and hope to expand to new locations.

The hair salon, run by Beehler, seemed very versatile. While the stylists show experience in more traditional hairstyles, they also tailor to trendier looks, such as Beehler’s own mohawk. The very capable nail technicians in the back of the studio have been some of the busier personnel.

“Downtown Rockford is one of the coolest parts of the city,” Hummel said. “It doesn’t feel so cookie-cutter.”

A very hip, but alternative atmosphere has added panaché to the studio’s interior. Both owners have a laid-back and welcoming attitude, and proudly sport their own work.

From the June 14-20, 2006, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!